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'Workforce Housing' for Pricey O.C.?

Irvine considers entry- level homes with higher- density zoning. Some on City Council oppose it.

September 12, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

This is not your average Orange County housing development: a proposal to build 2,000 homes for low- and moderate-income families in Irvine, one of the priciest cities in one of America's most expensive counties.

And unlike most so-called affordable housing, these homes would be for sale, not for rent.

"We haven't built this kind of a product in a long time," said Mike LeBlanc, a senior vice president with developer Irvine Co. "What we are doing is creating another rung in the housing ladder," an entry level to homeownership where many middle-class families cannot afford to buy.

In a nod to teachers, firefighters and others who would benefit, the project has been labeled "workforce housing."

However, City Council opposition makes the project far from a certainty.

If built, it would provide 150 homes for families who make less than $60,000 a year. Irvine officials estimate there are fewer than 20 homes in the city that low-income families can afford. The project also would include about 1,800 homes for families making between $60,000 and $90,000 a year.

The project is proposed for a 125-acre vacant parcel the company owns just north of the closed El Toro Marine base, which is to be redeveloped as the Orange County Great Park.

Councilman Mike Ward, who asked the Irvine Co. to pursue the project, said that the housing is desperately needed.

The median price of homes sold in the city in July ranged from $466,000 to $722,500 depending on the ZIP Code, according to DataQuick, a La Jolla real estate research firm. The median for Orange County was $525,000, the highest in Southern California.

Municipal planners and local developers say the biggest challenge to building less expensive housing in Orange County is low-density zoning.

In much of the county, residential areas are zoned for suburban developments that call for as few as six homes per acre.

That drives up the land cost for each unit.

"Land prices are the biggest barrier to affordability," said Barry Curtis, Irvine's principal planner. for the city of Irvine. "And that goes hand in hand with density."

For its workforce housing project, the Irvine Co. has asked the city to zone the site for as many as 31 homes per acre. After accounting for traffic limitations and space for parks and landscaping, the development should yield about 2,600 to 3,000 homes -- most of them townhomes and condominiums.

Higher density is a growing reality in many parts of Orange County as demand for housing increases while lots dwindle.

In Irvine's Jamboree corridor, a pair of 18-story condominium towers is under construction and others are planned. Santa Ana is also considering high-rise residential projects, and Anaheim recently passed a general plan that includes more than 9,000 homes mixed with 7 million square feet of offices and stores in a 807-acre area called the Platinum Triangle

In the workforce housing project, Irvine Co. officials say about 70% of the units would be priced between $275,000 and $400,000 if they were on the market today. An additional 5% would be priced at less than $100,000 and would go to low-income families. The remainder would be pricier.

As in many other expensive places to live, most low- and moderate-income Irvine families are renters. According to the Irvine Co., about 10% of homes recently sold in Irvine went for less than $400,000.

In the workforce housing project, the least expensive units would be available only to families that qualify as low-income and would remain so restricted for at least 30 years.

The company is also proposing to use deed restriction to inhibit speculators from driving up the cost of the moderately priced homes. Initial buyers will be required to live in their homes for at least two years.

The proposal is running into criticism from some on the City Council, however. Mayor Larry Agran calls it "not fully baked," arguing that it does not do enough to provide affordable housing over the long run.

Agran said he would like other options studied, such as inviting a nonprofit group to buy some of the units and ensure that they remain affordable.

At an Aug. 24 meeting, three of five council members -- Chris Mears, Christina Shea and Ward -- voted for the project.

However, the two opposed -- Agran and Beth Krom -- were able to block the project because the development needed at least a 4-1 majority to override an earlier decision by the Orange County Airport Land Use Commission to block the project.

The commission oversees development around airports. Although the El Toro Marine airfield has not operated for years, the commission has taken the position that the old base is still an airport until the Navy sells the land to developers. The sale is expected to happen before the end of next year. Once the Navy sells the land, the commission will no longer have jurisdiction.

The project could then come back to the City Council, which may have a different makeup after the November election. Mears is retiring. Ward and Krom are running for mayor, and Agran, who has served the legal maximum as mayor, is running for City Council.

Times staff writer Jean Pasco contributed to this report.

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