On Dec. 11, the Irvine City Council is scheduled to grant final approval to a massive new housing tract of 3,850 homes for about 10,000 new city residents without requiring the landowner to guarantee affordable housing within the new area.
This is a drastic policy change for a city that touts itself as a nationally recognized, master-planned community.
After almost two years of public discussion about the needs of Irvine’s work force as well as its retired population, the city of Irvine adopted one of the few state-approved Housing Elements in Orange County. This element of Irvine’s General Plan requires an inclusionary housing program for each new major housing development.
Known as “inclusionary zoning,” Irvine’s method of providing new affordable housing has been in effect since 1974. Having no older neighborhoods to rehabilitate, yet realizing its responsibility to provide a variety of housing opportunities, the city searched for innovative options that would not overburden local taxpayers.
The city recognized the “windfall” profit that accrues to a landowner when the local government grants zone changes allowing property to be used for residential development instead of farming. Every new housing development since 1974 received council approval for changing the zoning from agricultural use to residential use only after a legal stipulation was attached to the zoning document requiring that modestly priced housing units be included within each village.
In the ‘70s and the ‘80s, the inclusionary policy generated homes for thousands of persons of modest means who now can live in Woodbridge, Turtle Rock, University Town Center, Rancho San Joaquin, El Camino Real, Orange Tree, Northwood and the Irvine Business Complex near John Wayne Airport. No one village is exclusive--each has a portion of its housing units available to workers or retirees whose incomes don’t quite match the ever-rising housing costs.
These opportunities were created with no local tax subsidies. Instead, the units were generated because the owners of the land apparently discovered that the “subsidy” costs were insignificant when compared to the profits from the development as a whole. Importantly, both the city and developers have also discovered that the inclusion of lower-cost housing has had no impact on the marketability of the market-priced units in the same development.
In 1989, the city adjusted the inclusionary housing requirements to better meet the needs of the population in a community of extremely high median incomes. It became apparent that federal definitions of low and moderately priced homes were not based on reality in affluent Orange County.
Moderate-income here is defined at $58,920 annual income with adjusted monthly rents to meet that category at $1,473! “Low-income” is now defined as $39,000 annual income, while rents adjusted to meet the needs of “low-income” households are $982 per month--just about the market rate in most apartment complexes.
Speaker after speaker testified at Irvine’s 1989 public hearings on the Housing Element that housing for persons or families in the $25,000-to-$35,000-per-year range was desperately needed. They pointed out that while the county median income had risen dramatically to $49,500 in 1990, wages for essential jobs such as teachers, firefighters and police officers had not kept pace.
The city created new inclusionary housing income categories to match the needs of wage earners in professions that pay far less than the county median income.
Now a new Irvine City Council has backtracked on the city’s aggressive stance of assuring that a portion of the new village be “affordable to all income levels.”
The council is not inserting a legal requirement on the new Village 38 zone change for housing that will be available for persons earning yearly salaries of less than $39,000. With complicated, controversial language which sets a “goal” for affordable units, the city’s entitlement document for Village 38 does not formally tie the zone change (which will be extremely lucrative for the Irvine Co.) to a requirement that some affordable housing be created in that new village.
Naturally, landowners are reluctant to share their profits with the community. Yet the city, as negotiator for the Irvine residents during a landowner’s zone change request, has the responsibility to insist on the best deal for local residents.
The Irvine Co.'s request to be relieved of the affordable-housing requirement as it receives the much-desired city entitlement for major new housing developments is to be expected. The same scenario is being played out in local city halls all over the country.
At a time when Irvine is growing and creating the need for thousands of new jobs within the low- and moderate-wage category, the City Council needs to reconsider its decision to change the inclusionary housing policy.
All of us know of someone desperately in need of affordable housing whom we would welcome into our neighborhood--our children’s teacher, a grandparent on fixed income, a handicapped cousin, a recently divorced close friend with custody of children, an adult child working full time for entry-level wages, even a UC Irvine assistant professor.
We must let our council representatives know that our community (or any community in the county) is far richer when it provides a wide variety of housing opportunities within each neighborhood of the city.