Irvine Targets 12.5% of Homes for Low-Income

Times Staff Writer

After four months of often tense debate, the Irvine City Council early Wednesday set as a target that 12.5% of all future housing in the city be built for low-income residents.

On a 4-1 vote, the council set aside a proposal ordering developers to provide the affordable housing for very low-income residents, and instead established the 12.5% figure as a "goal"--for a while at least.

Two City Council members indicated that they intend to pursue the goal as if it is mandatory. And, they said, six months from now, they expect to have an environmental study in their hands and be able to legally change the word goal to requirement .

If mandatory quotas are adopted, Irvine's program would be the most stringent in Orange County, where advocates for the poor say there is a serious shortage of affordable housing.

Currently, only San Clemente requires construction of affordable housing, imposing quotas requiring that 7.5% of new housing be provided for families earning up to $24,000, and another 7.5% for households earning up to $37,000, according to an Irvine city planner. The county used to have quotas for affordable housing, but now the program is voluntary.

While Irvine's environmental study is under way, the city will establish a blue-ribbon committee to examine ways of raising money to finance affordable housing and offer incentives to developers.

"To hedge on this language, I have to swallow very hard. We're putting a lot of trust in this process," said Councilman Edward A. Dornan, who proposed the compromise housing plan.

Both he and Mayor Larry Agran essentially put developers on notice early Wednesday that even though the council set affordable housing goals, they are as good as requirements in their minds.

If a developer presents a plan that doesn't have sufficient housing priced for the neediest low-income residents, Agran said, "I'm not going to vote for it."

Councilwoman Sally Anne Sheridan cast the sole dissenting vote, saying she is opposed to quotas or any plan that had that effect. The increased density that will come with 12.5% affordable housing will cause traffic congestion, pollution and burdens to public safety, she said. Further, she said, the housing plan ignores the needs of moderate-income households.

Despite the specter of future quotas, the council's decision was praised by the Irvine Co., the city's chief landowner, which has opposed mandatory requirements.

"I think what they did was a wise decision that reflected well on the deliberative process. I think it is the result of shared concerns," said Keith Greer, Irvine Co. vice president and general manager of Irvine Community Builders. "We don't view it as a compromise but as a reinforcement of the shared commitment for affordable housing, which cannot be provided without a joint public-private effort."

As for the prospect of future mandatory quotas, Greer said, "we'll see what's before us then."

Under the council plan, the city housing goal is to have 1% of all future units set aside as "opportunity housing," earmarked for the handicapped, elderly and others earning up to 30% of the county's median income, or about $14,000 a year. Another 11.5% should be priced for households earning up to 50% of the median, or roughly $24,000 a year, and an additional 12.5% should be priced for families earning between 50% to 80% of the median, or $37,000 a year, under the council plan.

It also creates a 13-member committee, composed of two appointees from each council member, a residential developer, a commercial developer and a representative of the Irvine Co. The committee will explore the establishment of "linkage fees" to be imposed on businesses and developers to help finance affordable housing.

The council also established incentives to encourage construction of affordable housing, including bond financing and increased density.

Lastly, the council called for an environmental impact report on the effects of a 12.5% affordable housing quota, which could mean increased numbers of apartments built on smaller parcels of land.

Under state law, builders are entitled to build 25% more units than allowed by a city's general plan when they construct a project in which 10% or more of the units are priced as affordable housing. Alternatively, cities can offer builders other incentives, equal in value to the bonus, to avoid higher density.

Under the council's original affordable housing proposal, the city staff found there was no need for an environmental impact report on the 12.5% quota. The Irvine Co. challenged it, saying that the city's own projections showed that a density bonus associated with the quota would mean construction of an added 12,000 units, which would require an environmental impact study.

"That's larger than the entire village of Woodbridge," one of Irvine's largest communities, said Robert Break, attorney for the Irvine Co. Residents of those extra 12,000 units would generate traffic, consume water, use parks and schools, contribute to the sewage and solid waste systems and affect the environment in many other ways, he said.

Break said the Irvine Co. was contemplating a lawsuit if the council had adopted the affordable housing quotas without exploring the environmental impact of the density bonuses.

But Dornan said it was not a threatened lawsuit that brought about his proposal to change the quotas to goals, which he does not see as a compromise.

"I see it as part of the evolution toward a housing program," Dornan said. By setting goals and establishing the committee, the council can move forward with the construction of affordable housing while at the same time buy time to explore ways to finance future, required affordable housing, he said.

The housing goals are almost certain to be tested. In the next few months, the Irvine Co. is expected to seek approval of a major new residential development, now called "planning area 38." Current plans call for the development, made up of 3,700 units, to include 15% priced for low-income households and 10% for moderate-income families, Greer said.

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