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Facing Up to Affordable Housing

Mission Viejo will discuss a shortage of lower-cost units after a state official's criticism.

June 21, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The shortage of affordable housing in upscale Mission Viejo will be discussed at today's City Council meeting, in the wake of a letter from a state housing official chiding the city for not adequately addressing the problem.

Cathy Creswell, deputy director of state housing policy development, said in her letter that many people who work in Mission Viejo couldn't afford to live in the community.

The letter followed her warning in an appearance before the City Council two weeks ago that the city is not meeting state requirements to create housing opportunities for residents across the economic spectrum. Her presentation had been requested by city staff members.

One council member waved off Creswell's concerns, noting state statistics that Mission Viejo is only one among some 20% of California cities that fail to meet affordable housing standards. But two other council members were alarmed to receive Creswell's two-page letter.

"It appears to be a very serious violation of the state housing authority," Councilman William S. Craycraft said. "And it is certainly something the city cannot ignore."

Creswell said the city drew attention to itself four months ago when its Planning Commission twice rejected Aliso Ridge, a proposed 168-unit apartment complex that would have met the state's affordable housing standards.

Based on various formulas that factor in the cost of housing and median family income, Mission Viejo is 154 units shy of its obligation to make affordable housing available.

Aliso Ridge was one of only two remaining undeveloped sites identified by the city as locations for affordable housing. The state instructed the city in 2001 to rezone the two properties from commercial to residential for high-density multifamily development by January 2003. Neither property has been rezoned.

"What they did is somewhat unique," Creswell said. "They made a commitment, and two years after the fact, they haven't done it. We've expressed our willingness to continue working with them, but they need to move quickly."

The Aliso Ridge proposal was strongly resisted by neighbors. A scaled-back proposal went to the council in April but lacked sufficient support. It will be discussed again this month.

If Mission Viejo fails to comply with state housing law, Creswell said in an interview, the city will be vulnerable to private litigation challenging its general plan, and ineligible for various grants available to cities meeting affordable housing standards.

In her letter to the city, which did not threaten any sanctions, Creswell said, "An inadequate housing supply, particularly for affordable housing, forces working families to commute longer and longer distances, creates severe burdens on lower-income families and seniors, who are forced to spend more than 50% of their income on housing, and puts the dream of home ownership further and further out of reach."

Councilwoman Patricia Kelley, who opposed Aliso Ridge saying the property was more viable as a commercial venture, said she wasn't worried by the noncompliance letter.

"We're certainly not the only city out of compliance," Kelley said. "There were two pieces of property that could have been rezoned for residential. We still have another very sizable piece of property. I think it's very difficult to have a housing mandate put on us like that when we are built-out."

Councilman Lance MacLean, however, said the letter troubled him.

"The fabric of the Mission Viejo community has always been inclusive to young and old, rich and poor," he said. "Clearly, we need to honor our obligation and commitment to provide affordable housing to young families as well as seniors who desire to live where they work."

Charles E. Wilson, Mission Viejo's director of community development, said his staff was seeking the council's direction.

"We're asking them if they want to proceed with those [two] existing sites," Wilson said. "Or [should the city] amend the housing [policy] to identify other potential sites and strategies?"

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