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S. County Builds 1st Family Low-Income Units in 5 Years


How scarce is low-income housing in south Orange County?

Just listen to San Clemente Housing Coordinator Leslie Davis' phone: It keeps ringing. The day the news broke in town that 186 low-income apartments would be built in the Talega development, she got 50 calls. Seventy more followed--and applications for the homes aren't even being accepted yet.

San Clemente has 4,000 families living on less than half the median county income--$33,850 for a family of four--but there are only 150 existing rental units for them.

South County, with its reputation as a bedroom community for the well-to-do, has been largely ignored in the effort to increase the county's low-income housing supply. But now, with the help of a $35-million county partnership program, a string of projects is underway.

The county wants to help build 1,000 low-income rentals a year. And with North County largely built out, officials are increasingly looking at South County projects.

Rancho Mission Viejo announced Wednesday that it is building 44 low-income rental apartments in Ladera Ranch. These and the Talega apartments are the first low-income rental homes to be built for families in South County in five years.

"The south part of the county is where you have remaining land left and building is going on," said Ken Domer of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development. "It's important to get affordable projects in now."

The Ladera apartments are reserved for families in the same income group as the Talega units. The apartments will start at $700 a month in a community where some homes cost more than $600,000. Under the county partnership, price caps will stay on the apartments for at least 55 years.

"We are finding some of our major service workers--nurses, firefighters, policemen and teachers, the people we depend on every single day--are the ones who are struggling to find everyday shelter," said Rancho Mission Viejo spokeswoman Diane Gaynor. "This is a small step, but it's a step in the right direction."

In addition to the Ladera and Talega projects, the county this year is subsidizing 122 low-income rentals for seniors at the Vintage Shores community in San Clemente.

A coalition is also being formed to address the low-income housing shortage in South County. As part of that movement, Davis is drafting a needs assessment that will be presented at a community forum next month. The numbers she has seen so far aren't encouraging.

"A good 25% of the South County population is paying more than 50% of their income in rent," Davis said. "They want to stay living here and be productive members of society."

San Clemente is one of the cities in South County that requires developers of big residential projects to build low-income homes. That requirement led to the creation of about 550 low-income apartment rentals. But the old version of the ordinance lifted the rent cap after 10 years, which resulted in the city losing about 400 low-income units in the mid-1990s. While San Clemente rushes to get 300 units built, and Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo have aggressively worked to create low-income housing, other South County cities are watching and waiting.

"Most cities are hanging back and waiting for developers to come to them," Davis said. "They've got to step up and say, 'This is where we want it.' "

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