Jennifer Tims caught a break.
The 35-year-old read and reread the email from the Irvine Community Land Trust, the one saying her number had been drawn in a lottery for families wanting to move into a new, 104-unit apartment complex in Irvine.
She tried not to get too excited. Until that moment, her search for an affordable apartment had been luckless. The Huntington Beach native had even been through a number of transitional housing programs, but couldn’t scrape up full rent money.
Now, a year later, Tims and her son, Julian, live in a safe two-bedroom apartment near the Orange County Great Park. The place is a few blocks from Julian’s elementary school and even closer to a middle school he might attend. A grocery is within walking distance. The complex has a pool. Their backyard is a park.
And in a city where the average asking rent in a big apartment complex is $2,114, Tims pays a monthly rent of $830.
Tims’ new home, Alegre Apartments, drew interest from about 2,400 people during construction in late 2013.
It’s the first development completed by the nonprofit Irvine Community Land Trust, which was established by the city in 2006 to help meet a goal of 9,700 affordable dwellings.
Tims describes her apartment as “a dream come true.”
Others describe it as a potential answer to the affordable housing puzzle that’s plagued Orange County for decades.
Mark Asturias, who runs the land trust, says the goal is for apartments in Alegre to stay affordable.
INCENTIVES TO BUILD
Affordable housing allows a community to include people who bring home paychecks of all sizes. Young people, retirees, people who work in lower-paying jobs – everybody needs a place to live.
But in Orange County – where a typical home costs more than $600,000 and average monthly rent is more than $1,800 – not every community offers them a spot. According to a 2014 report by the California Housing Partnership Corporation, the county could use about 120,000 more affordable dwellings.
It’s partly about economics and partly about attitude, say some affordable housing advocates.
“With the exception of a few cities in Orange County, I think there is really truly a lack of political will” for affordable housing, said Doug Bystry, a former member of the La Habra City Council who now is chief executive of Clearinghouse CDFI, a Lake Forest-based company that helps finance affordable construction.
Bystry said people in the county have a knee-jerk negative reaction when they hear the term “affordable” housing.
But he pointed out that local apartment complexes that look and feel affordable because they’re overcrowded are often priced at market rates but rented out by multiple tenants who pool their money to afford a place to live.
That popular misconception, Bystry said, is “the biggest obstacle” to getting cities and others to welcome affordable housing.
Some cities will approve affordable housing for seniors, Bystry said, but shy away from other groups in need.
“It’s more politically acceptable,” he said of senior housing. “Residents are OK with it. But a family development … neighbors will come out to complain.”
Among Orange County cities, he added, Irvine has been an exception. Builders in the city are required to price 15 percent of new construction within reach of low-income residents.
However, apartments built for low-income residents, even in Irvine, don’t stay that way forever. Affordability requirements eventually expire, and developers can raise rents.
Asturias said his group’s goal is to create projects that start affordable and stay that way.
The nonprofit holds land, typically donated, and partners with builders on affordable projects. After a project is open, Asturias said, his nonprofit maintains control of the complex, setting rents at rates deemed affordable.
This year, by state guidelines, the maximum rent for an affordable one-bedroom apartment in Orange County is $1,046 a month for a low-income earner and $871 a month for a very low earner.
Earlier this year, Irvine held three community forums about affordable housing. All seats were taken at the meeting held at Bethel Korean Church. Attendees held up smartphones to capture every slide of the presentation, which listed communities that would encompass affordable units.
This week, the Irvine Co.’s Solaria development, slated for lower-income seniors, is holding a grand opening. The 221-unit community includes 189 one-bedroom units and 30 two-bedroom apartments.
The smaller units rent for $836 to $1,012, and larger units rent for up to $1,214 – $900 less than the average asking rent in Irvine in the year ending Sept. 30, as estimated by apartment tracking company Real Answers.
Solaria is the city’s first affordable development for seniors to open in Irvine in 20 years. The housing complex also is the first with affordable units to open in the Great Park Neighborhoods, in which up to 9,500 homes are slated to be built around the Great Park.
Other cities also have affordable units in the pipeline.
In Lake Forest, the Portola Center residential development, which will encompass 930 homes and nearly 10,000 square feet for commercial and retail development, will include 57 one-bedroom units for lower-income seniors.
In Aliso Viejo, workers broke ground in August on the $43.7 million Vintage Aliso community, a 202-unit affordable complex for seniors.
But even as affordable housing is built, many cities continue to fall far short of the amount of housing needed.
Huntington Beach needs to identify space for 533 more low- and very low-income units, according to a regional assessment. The city recently was sued by a nonprofit organization that believes there won’t be enough affordable housing in the city’s recently revised development plan for Beach Boulevard and Edinger Avenue.
A Costa Mesa councilman last week proposed adding a $20 million bond measure to the November 2016 ballot to help fund new affordable housing developments in the city.
And Newport Beach is deciding how to use $4.2 million in developers fees set aside for affordable housing.
This month, the council will consider using about $2 million to turn a 12-unit apartment complex into low-income housing and $600,000 to repair senior housing, and lending the rest to rehab the 30-year-old apartments at Seaview Lutheran Plaza, behind Gelson’s Market.
Even though hundreds of units are slated to be built in the city in communities like Uptown Newport, off Jamboree Road, Newport Beach Mayor Ed Selich said more affordable housing – beyond goals set by the state – is needed.
“We’re not dealing with all of the need. We’re just meeting the guidelines,” Selich said. “It’s like anything else. Can you ever provide enough?”
Decades ago, Newport Beach was sued by residents who argued the city’s housing regulations were meant to keep out poor people and minorities.
“Maybe the city learned a lesson from that,” Selich said. “The city has been very conscientious ever since.”
Cesar Covarrubias, who heads the Kennedy Commission, an Irvine-based affordable housing advocacy group, said cities should push developers harder to provide more low-income housing.
Covarrubias added that some cities are taking advantage of the current housing market to get developers to build more affordable projects. He pointed to Santa Ana, where city officials recently changed the rules so builders can’t pay a fee to get out of putting up affordable apartments.
Still, Irvine’s land trust, which developed Tims’ apartment, is “pretty unique,” Covarrubias said.
“In 55 years, when the covenant on the property runs out, the land trust will be in the position to come back and say, ‘We want to continue the affordability,’” he said.
“That’s the only model to really make sure housing is affordable in perpetuity.”
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