By JOHN SEILER / Staff columnist
*Read the article online here.
Where are poor people supposed to live? That’s the question I always ask when local governments work to push the impoverished out of what used to be called slums.
The latest controversy surrounds the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard, which for about 20 years has been a place for people who are down and out. It soon could be converted into apartments. As the Register reported, it currently rents “cheap rooms to whoever would pay – attracting both crime and low-income renters” and is “a crime-ridden inn that has bothered nearby businesses.”
A friend of mine, broke at the time, lived there for awhile until moving to better digs. I visited and saw that, although there are altercations and the police go there more often than at regular motels, it’s not as bad as it might seem.
Residents are a mix of new immigrants, the unemployed, retirees, working families who can’t afford anything better – and some criminal element. There’s a clean swimming pool, the grounds are kept up, utilities are included in the rent of $1,000 and shopping is across the street.
The Register reported, “Miracle Mile Properties has presented a plan to redevelop the Motor Inn for $50 million into apartments for college students and young couples. The plan offers no low-income housing, instead proposing 20 units of moderate-income units – apartments that could go to a person making over $73,000 annually, according to the state’s definition for Orange County.” This is a relaxation of zoning, a type of government coercion, not an increase of it. So I can’t argue with the change.
A big part of the problem is that Orange County and coastal California in general now are just too expensive. You can get a decent, regular-sized apartment in Phoenix for $550 a month. It’s even cheaper elsewhere.
“For people moving into Orange County, it needs to be communicated just how expensive it is,” Jim Palmer told me; he’s the president of the Orange County Rescue Mission. “If they come from Oklahoma City, they see the beauty here and hope everything will work out. Once they realize the expense, we help them with tickets to go back.”
The paradisaical weather sure beats the blast-furnace summers of Phoenix or the Siberian winters of my native Michigan. But what good is that if you can’t afford it?
A big problem is government restrictions on housing construction. Palmer pointed out that “the government owns half of California” and limits development on that land. A Register editorial Wednesday detailed how government housing programs backfire. It quoted Pacific Legal Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Tony Francois, who said, “Penalizing homebuilders with more costs and mandates deters the creation of more housing, and raises the overall cost of market-rate homes.”
Then there’s the California Coastal Commission and the Local Area Formation Commissions, which restrict housing. And Senate Bill 375, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law in 2008, makes it state policy to stress high-rise housing, which actually is more expensive than other housing.
People can wait in long lines to get federal Section 8 housing vouchers. “My concern is the program doesn’t graduate people out,” Palmer said. “I like programs that get people on their feet so you can provide for yourself.”
The ultimate solution to help with housing for the poor would be a Houston-style repeal of zoning laws combined with a big sell-off of government lands. But none of that is going to happen. As Joel Kotkin has written in the Register, the environmentalist elite, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, don’t want more people here. And even conservative Republicans don’t want their $750,000 home values to drop back to $300,000.
So, with even the middle class hard-pressed to live here, there just isn’t a solution to housing for Orange County’s poor – except a ticket to somewhere else.