Last month, when plans for a 38-unit apartment building of low-cost housing for seniors came before the San Juan Capistrano City Council, there was no opposition. After some minor tinkering, the council unanimously approved the project.
Three years earlier, though, the city was not so accommodating when a developer proposed building 60 rental units for poor working families. In May 2004, the council rejected the proposal when questions were raised about the company's ability to line up adequate financing. But what surprised city officials was the opposition from home and business owners who complained rental housing would bring traffic, crime and other problems to the neighborhood.
The difference in the way the projects were received was not lost on some advocates of low-income housing.
"What we've seen more and more is opposition to low-income family housing, but it's not unique to San Juan Capistrano," said Scott Darrell, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, a local advocacy group for low-cost housing. "Low-income housing for seniors doesn't generate the emotional reaction that housing for poor families does."
San Juan Capistrano and other affluent southern Orange County cities have been grappling with the issue of low-income housing for the last decade. Next month, the Southern California Assn. of Governments will consider the city's plan to build 621 low-cost units in the next seven years.
But if the past is an indicator, reaching that goal may be problematic. San Juan planned 447 units for very low, low- and moderate-income households between 2000 and 2008, but only 109 have been built, said planning department analyst Lynette Leahmann.
For the senior development, tenants' incomes must be between 30% and 60% of the county's median income, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists as $78,700.
The income eligibility was the same for the project the council rejected in 2004, when Mercy Housing of California proposed 60 apartment units on Calle Rolando, to be filled mainly by poor people already living in the city. Most would have been Latino immigrants. Ben Phillips, Mercy regional director in L.A., said the company envisioned a project of two or three stories with attached individual garages.
It quickly became obvious that the proposal was doomed, because "the impression of affordable housing was a 30-story public housing compound like the ones built in the 1960s," Phillips said.
Orrie Brown, co-owner of a commercial building on Calle Rolando, said residents and business owners were concerned about vandalism and other problems. "We saw pictures of other Mercy housing sites, particularly in Oxnard. It looked like a blighted area," Brown said.
Assistant City Manager William Huber said he believed the Mercy project would probably be accepted today.
"I think that with time we've educated those people about low-income housing. They saw it as a stigma and were afraid of overcrowding. That's not what happens with affordable-housing projects these days," he said.
Last year the city donated the land that Mercy wanted to develop to Habitat for Humanity, which plans to build 27 homes at the 2.7-acre site. Fourteen homes will be for disabled veterans and their families or survivors, said Habitat spokeswoman Joan Ziegler. The others will be set aside for poor working families. The price of the homes has not been set.
The Habitat project has little opposition, said Brown, because "the fact that this is owner-occupied housing does make a difference."
Phillips said, "I hope that Habitat's success means that people are beginning to understand that affordable housing means that some families can move out of overcrowded units they share with others."