Village Matters

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Don’t Let the Lights Go Out

By Ann Christoph
By Ann Christoph

No holiday lights, no candles in the windows. The step-houses—the second homes– are empty for the holidays. And most of the year.

Laguna’s population has been steadily growing from just over 5,000 in the 1950s to

23,727 in 2000, until the 2010 census which showed a 1,000 person decline.

With so many looking for housing in our city, why do we have fewer people living here now than we did in 2000? The answer lies partially in the prevalence of second homes. The census says that 2,000 of the 13,000 Laguna Beach dwelling units are not occupied!

On one nearby street, for example, only nine of the 21 homes are occupied full time, three are for sale, one was rented but is now vacant and eight are second homes. One man who actually lives in his house says, “It’s not the neighborhood I moved into any more. I really liked my neighbors; now I hardly have any. There’s no question that having all these empty houses changes the character of my neighborhood.”

How does this happen?

People who have lived in the neighborhood for years will their houses to non-profits outside Laguna Beach or to their kids. The siblings can’t agree on what to do with the house, or no one of them can afford to buy the others out. The non-profits just want the cash. So the house goes on the market. Someone buys it who wants to extensively remodel, or demolish it and rebuild. Construction is stressful for the neighborhood; not only all that noise, dust and commotion, but the psychological disturbance of not knowing what comes next. For years the quiet, comfortable neighbor was near by, someone you could depend on. Now they’re replaced by ambitious new people banging away day after day. Then after all that they often don’t live there, using it as a vacation home or putting it back on the market.

In the meantime, people who are the backbone of the community have difficulty finding an affordable place to live in Laguna.

Last month as we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the walk in the canyon, the turning point event that led to saving acres of open space in the Laguna Greenbelt. I was thinking, “Would the people who marched back then still be able to find and afford a place to live here?”

Laguna Beach’s median house price in 1990 was $471,000. Now it’s $1.89 million, according to the real estate web site Zillow.com, 400% higher. Orange County’s median home prices increased too, but not as much, from $242,358 in 1990, according to the Los Angeles Almanac, compared to $582,900 in 2014, an increase of 241%.

Thanks to the preservation efforts of those who walked and did so much more year after year to foster and protect our community’s unique qualities—the Greenbelt, the village character, the coastline and ocean—Laguna Beach is more sought after than ever. The home values have priced out many of the people who were so dedicated to keeping and improving its environment, and their latter day equivalents (those who could be living in those empty houses) just won’t be here.

This is social and environmental injustice, unrecognized. Not good for the future of our town.

Could we set up a Laguna Beach Housing Foundation or a part of an existing local foundation that could accept donated houses and manage them in perpetuity? Over time we could develop housing stock that would provide housing at an affordable cost for Laguna’s middle-income community members, people who will live here, keep our community vibrant and keep Laguna a genuine functioning town. What a good feeling for the donors to know that their bequest will help the Laguna Beach they love live on.

Laguna’s charm is not only its setting; it’s the community relationships. Its residents being active, expressing passion and ideas for making all our lives more fulfilling. For that we need everyone, from all walks of life, giving and taking part. Middle-income housing makes that possible.

Let’s find innovative ways to keep Lagunans in our neighborhoods. Don’t let the lights go out!

 

Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former council member.

 

 

 

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