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To Some, Affordable Housing Means Nightmare Neighbors

Mission Viejo residents denounce plans for an apartment complex. Working families would be the likely occupants, officials say.

February 01, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The developer had constructed affordable-housing projects up and down the West Coast with little controversy, but he sensed trouble when he saw the flier circulating in upscale Mission Viejo.

"Stop the Nightmare Before It Starts," it read, above a depiction of high-rise tenements. The drawing looked more like the notorious Cabrini-Green project in Chicago than the 168-unit suburban apartment complex that Michael Hall wanted to build in south Orange County.

"Hundreds of cars adding to our traffic congestion; dwindling educational resources diverted to non-English-speaking students, overcrowding in local schools," the flier read. "Increased propensity for litter, disease, graffiti and crime."

With word of the Aliso Ridge housing proposal spreading, about 100 people, 10 times the usual turnout, attended last week's planning commission meeting.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Affordable housing -- An article in Sunday's California section about affordable housing in Mission Viejo incorrectly reported that the Committee for Integrity in Government, a citizens group, was formed in part to oppose construction of affordable housing. It was formed in part to oppose high-density housing.

And with each speaker, Hall grew more doubtful that the community would welcome moderate- and low-income families. Affordable-housing units for which the government subsidizes rents have sprung up in such places as Irvine and San Clemente, but the reception was decidedly chilly in this community.

Even though the project had the support of the planning department staff, not a single resident championed it at the public meeting.

"Whenever one of these projects go up, there's always an increase in crime, including gang activity, increased pressure on public resources," said Arthur S. Lucero, who identified himself as a retired state parole officer and law enforcement consultant. He said he regularly deals with residents of low-cost, high-density housing, and offered: "The one good thing about [them] is, it makes the job of a parole officer a lot easier because they are all clumped up together."

A 10-year resident, Lin Morelic, addressed planning commissioners too. "We've worked too hard our entire lives to have our neighborhood changed into rentals and low-income projects," she said. "These projects are notoriously known for their overcrowded apartments, excess cars of friends and families, graffiti, gangs, drugs and drive-by shootings. Consider what would happen to our schools and traffic, our children, our parents, grandparents and friends if this project were approved. Adding this large of a low-income project would forever change the complexion of our city."

And so it went, into the evening, with residents roundly opposing the proposal even though it was to be near Jeronimo Road and Los Alisos Boulevard in a business and commercial district not abutting residential neighborhoods. The proposal includes 99 upscale single-family homes.

Among those who probably would qualify as apartment occupants, based on their wages, would be teachers, firefighters and nurses, housing officials note.

In the end, planning commissioners unanimously opposed the project, saying it was inconsistent with the general plan and would occupy land in a commercial district better suited for revenue-producing businesses.

Councilman Lance MacLean, sitting in the audience, said he detected other motives at play, and he walked out in disgust.

"Apparently Mission Viejo was too busy developing its master plan in 1965 and missed the civil rights movement," he said. "I'm embarrassed and disappointed that so many people in the community would engage in such exclusionary politics that border on bigotry and racism."

Hall, vice president of developer Steadfast Cos., said he was unprepared for the negative reaction.

"For over a year, we've worked with a planning staff toward something we thought would resonate positively with the commission," Hall said.

The planning commission's vote was advisory; Aliso Ridge's fate will be decided by the City Council, probably in March.

Mayor Gail Reavis and Councilman John Paul Ledesma are members of a group of local political activists, Committee for Integrity in Government, that was formed six years ago in part to defeat similar affordable-housing projects.

Those efforts failed, but several core members of that group spoke out against Aliso Ridge last week.

Reavis did not return phone calls seeking comment on the current proposal, and Ledesma declined comment.

The project has its supporters. One resident, Patricia Temple, e-mailed City Hall: "Affordable housing is desperately needed in Orange County, so that our working wage workers ... can live closer to work, thus reducing traffic congestion. Don't bow down to those who would turn Mission Viejo into an elitist enclave."

One of last week's speakers, Dorothy Wedel, suggested that if the apartments were properly located in town, their occupants might benefit from the surroundings.

"People learn from good neighbors, and they're pulled down from weak neighbors," she said. "If we want to culturally improve the low-income occupants, we need to circulate them and distribute them where they're more able to learn and improve their standards of living and their habits."

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