NATIONAL headlines have declared a rift in the 50-year relationship between the Walt Disney Co. and the city of Anaheim. Disney has sued the city — for the first time — to block a mixed-income housing development, and it is leading efforts to get two measures on the ballot that would determine the future development of sites near its Disneyland resort.
While most of the coverage and commentary have focused on Disney's heavy-handed response, the underlying story is one of greater significance to many California communities: the lack of affordable housing. More than 200 workers and residents attended the April 24 Anaheim City Council meeting during which the project was approved. Many people shared their stories of raising children in overcrowded and substandard apartments, mobile homes and motel rooms. Their message was clear: If we're good enough to work here, then we should be able to live here in high-quality, affordable homes.
Orange County's working-class communities are in stark contrast to the O.C. portrayed in television "reality" shows and dramas. At the meeting, Councilwoman Lorri Galloway captured the reality of Anaheim's resort-area neighborhoods with some startling statistics: 6,000 low-wage jobs (with wages averaging less than $15 an hour) were added in the resort district since 2000, but no new homes affordable to those workers were developed. The rental vacancy rate is less than 4%, and a worker must earn about $29 an hour to afford the typical two-bedroom apartment. Many workers must double and triple up in overcrowded homes, and about 850 homes near the resort are categorized as "extremely substandard" and lack basic plumbing and kitchen facilities. As a result, Anaheim ranks fifth in the nation among cities with the most overcrowded housing conditions.
More than 35,000 Orange County residents are homeless, according to the latest figures, and more than half of them are members of working families with children. For many of its resort-area workers, Anaheim is clearly not the happiest place on Earth to live.
Disney's opposition to the housing proposal may seem simple enough: Disneyland is the city's economic engine, and the resort area is zoned only for projects with compatible commercial uses. "This (resort) district pays for police services and fire services and parks and repairs," said Disney spokesman Rob Doughty. "This is the major funding source for this city, and it perplexes us as to why they would jeopardize it."
However, Disney's position points to a major, if not the major, problem California communities face. Proposition 13 limitations on commercial and residential property tax increases have made local governments dependent on sales and hotel "bed" taxes to pay for community services. All too often elected leaders feel compelled to choose the development of new hotels, shopping centers and auto malls over new homes, regardless of the housing needs.
Others in the community have argued that Disney and the city have no role in "subsidizing" housing for low-wage workers. But this "let the market prevail" argument ignores more than 70 years of federal, state and local involvement in the housing market. Generations of families have achieved homeownership through federally subsidized and guaranteed loans. One form of "subsidy" is the more than $70 billion (twice the operating budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) devoted to mortgage interest deductions — a program that helps mostly middle- and high-income homeowners.
Local and state governments also play important roles. Anaheim has invested millions of dollars in rehabilitation loans for substandard apartments, facilitated the redevelopment of small "in-fill" sites as moderately priced homes and partnered with developers to construct new rental communities. This summer a nonprofit developer will open the first rental housing developmentaffordable to low-wage working families to be built in the city in more than 15 years. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been able to keep pace with housing prices and the growing number of low-wage jobs.
If the resort area is to be reserved for sales-tax generating uses, then housing development sites in every other neighborhood in the city should be identified. The city should provide incentives to developers to build mixed-income rental and homeownership communities on underutilized commercial and residential sites. An impact fee to help pay for housing construction should be attached to all large-scale commercial development that generates low-wage jobs. The city should require that a portion of all new housing be affordable to low-wage workers.
Most important, Disney and the business community must move beyond their "let them live elsewhere" attitude and instead play a role in identifying solutions and support the city's efforts at increasing housing opportunities for workers at all income levels.