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Affordable Housing in Rancho Mission Viejo

Low-income housing.  It is a sensitive and controversial topic for many reasons.  Residents worry about crime, blight and other problems that they associate with “low-income” neighbors — whether or not such concerns are merited.  Because low-income housing is often subsidized rental housing, homeowners wonder about whether the low-income renters are going to maintain their apartments with the same “pride of ownership” as homeowners.  The topic of low-income housing raises questions of politics, economics and fairness.  Some feel that low-income housing is a distortion of market economics and a waste of tax money that could be better spent elsewhere.  Others question whether the process for selecting low-income tenants is truly fair and objective.  Supporters point out that in the affluent neighborhoods of Orange County, there simply must be safe, affordable and local places for teachers, domestic workers, food service workers and other low-income families to live.  This article is not intended to take a position on the debate, but rather to frame the issue of low-income housing as it relates to the Ranch Plan.

You recall that the Ranch Plan includes a substantial number of affordable housing units.  Specifically, the Ranch Plan project provides for the development of 14,000 units, of which ~40% will be age restricted.  Age restricted housing is “for sale” real estate that requires the owner to be at least a certain age, often 55 years or older, and age-restricted housing is one form of affordable housing — providing seniors with reasonably priced options.  Laguna Woods Village is an example of an area with substantial numbers of age restricted housing units.  Age-restricted “for sale” housing is not nearly as controversial as low-income rental housing.  The Ranch Plan will also include low-income rental units.  Specifically, the Development Agreement requires Rancho Mission Viejo Company to supply Orange County with at least sixty acres of graded land for use as low-income rental housing.  According to a subsequent implementation agreement, the sixty acres will not be in a single location, but rather, will be phased into the overall Ranch Plan at several different locations.

Affordable housing in Rancho Mission Viejo is a critical component of the County’s overall affordable housing plan and the delay in starting development of the Ranch Plan is a concern to County Officials.  This OC Planning Commission report (PDF) states that:

Due to the economic downturn experienced during the planning period, the commencement of development of the Ranch Plan Planned Community was delayed, as were public facilities implementation plans for the project. This delay greatly decreased the number of new housing units built during this planning period. The County worked with the developer to revise the number of housing units projected for the next planning period.

In 2011, the developer initiated the process to begin development of Planning Area 1 of the Ranch Plan Planned Community. Planning Area 1 is expected to include 1,287 housing units and a retail/office center. A portion of these units will be rental and some will be reserved for senior housing. The developer is actively working with residential builders to process planning and permit applications through the County’s planning department. A public facilities implementation plan is currently being negotiated and should be in place by the end of 2012.

Note that Planning Area 1 (i.e., the Village of Sendero) includes an apartment complex at the corner of Ortega and Antonio/La Pata.  We do not know if this apartment is designated as low-income housing — in part due to the fact that the developers aren’t required to openly identify low-income housing.  In fact, portions of the planning commission meetings related to low-income housing can be done in closed sessions to avoid public “outcry.”  Still, if we had to guess, we would guess that the Planning Area 1 apartments are not going to be low-income housing (although they may have some units set aside for low-income housing, consistent with the proposal for the nearby Whispering Hills apartment complex).  This is because the County of Orange needs to build the low-income housing, not the developer, which requires Orange County to come up with funding.  Right now, tax revenue is down and funding is tight.  In addition, the Planning Commission report states that Planning Area 1 will contain age-restricted housing and rental housing, but it does not state that any of the rental housing will be low-income rental units.

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