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Housing Plan Has a Shaky Foundation

Development: Critics say O.C.'s strategy lacks teeth to force builders to provide about 4,000 more homes for low-income residents by 2005.


Orange County is woefully behind on construction of low-income housing, say critics who charge that the county's new state-mandated plan does not require construction of any affordable units and will do little to ease a growing shortage.

The plan--to be considered by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday--affects more than 200,000 acres of unincorporated land over which the county still has jurisdiction. Fourteen cities in the county also have not completed their state-required plans.

The quotas set for 1998-2005 require county government to ensure that a total of 22,500 new homes are built, according to figures from the Southern California Assn. of Governments. That includes about 4,000 homes for families with incomes of less than $35,000. So far, 67 such low-income homes have been built.

"We're talking about teachers, hospital emergency technicians, child-care workers," said Maya Dunne, a housing advocate who participated in an advisory group on the plan. "This is the core of our society. We need to provide housing for them."

Dunne and other housing advocates say the county's new plan is too vague to provide the thousands of new low-income units needed. Another 1,764 housing units are needed for families with incomes ranging from about $35,000 to about $66,000.

The plan offers mostly voluntary ideas and incentives for building the more than 3,900 homes required just for very-low-income families. It encourages--rather than requires--developers to ensure that 10% of any new rental units will serve large families. For the most part, it does not indicate where any of that housing would be located.

"The question is, where is this housing going?" Dunne said. "There is really very little land-use vision."

But home builders who participated in the advisory group said it would be inappropriate for the plan--called the county's "Housing Element"--to go into detail about what housing belongs where.

"This is, by definition, a planning process," said Christine Diemer Iger, chief executive of the Orange County Building Industry Assn. "It was never envisioned to actually boil down to exact parcels."

County planning department spokesman Josh McDonnell said he could not comment on why the plan contained recommendations rather than mandates. He noted that the plan was put together by nonprofit housing advocates, major developers like the Irvine Co. and others who were invited by county planners to participate.

"This draft is really a result of both those groups working together . . . and we're very proud of that," he said. The plan "establishes the provision of affordable housing as a top priority, and that's really important."

Asked about the low number of affordable homes built so far, he noted that the Board of Supervisors in December set aside "an unprecedented $35 million over the next five years" to help subsidize affordable housing.

In a March 19 letter to the county, state officials said more specific sites and construction timelines should be included in the draft. But they also said the county is doing an exemplary job of at least addressing the issue.

Advocates for low-income families said they were pleased to be invited to participate and praised the plan's attention to affordable housing. Still, they argued that the county should be requiring builders to include a certain number of affordable units in their housing developments.

Diemer Iger said such housing plans are usually criticized for doing too little to address the tremendous need they identify. "It's a constant concern," she said. "This is a great exercise. But the real question is, what's next?"

According to her group, the best solution is a bill by state Sen. Joseph Dunn (D-Santa Ana) that would withhold state funding and fine communities that do not zone for state housing requirements.

Allen Baldwin, executive director of Orange County Community Housing, said the county's plan and others like it are "a strategy to fail."

"The people I represent have not seen and will not see any housing," said Baldwin, whose group has worked since 1978 to create affordable housing.

He said the same applies to the county's goal of finding 2,000 additional apartments that would be subsidized by federal money under the Section 8 program, which supplies housing vouchers to low-income people. With extremely low apartment vacancy rates and high rents countywide, Baldwin said renters will be hard pressed to find landlords willing to accept such vouchers. "The reality is, how do we minister to that family of 18 people living in a two-bedroom apartment?"

Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the plan at a 9:30 a.m. Tuesday meeting in the county hearing room in Santa Ana. The Anaheim City Council also is expected to consider its proposed housing plan Tuesday evening.

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