Affordable Housing Project ‘Not Right’ for Capistrano

Times Staff Writer

For the second time in four months, a south Orange County city has rejected an affordable housing project after neighbors objected to the development’s density and a negative effect on their property values.

In a closed meeting last week, the San Juan Capistrano City Council decided against selling a vacant, city-owned 2.7-acre parcel to a nonprofit housing organization that wanted to develop a 60-unit, low-income rental housing complex. A statement from City Hall described the project as “not right” for the city.

In January, the Mission Viejo Planning Commission rejected a 168-unit apartment complex on a vacant 23-acre hilltop site.


In rejecting the projects, both cities remain short of meeting state affordable housing requirements. San Juan Capistrano, whose residents span the socioeconomic spectrum from low-paid migrant workers to affluent retirees, needs an additional 201 units by 2006 to meet its goals.

Mission Viejo, a generally upscale, master-planned community of distinctive neighborhoods, needs 154 units by 2005.

The neighborhood opposition to affordable housing in San Juan Capistrano wasn’t as strong as it had been in Mission Viejo, but nonetheless swayed San Juan Capistrano council members to reject the proposal.

“In public testimony, the neighbors were concerned about the density and the property values,” said Councilman Wyatt T. Hart, who said the project had no support from his colleagues. “I felt the complex was too expensive, too massive and wasn’t right for the neighborhood.”

Affordable housing advocates were discouraged.

“This was an opportunity to create a socioeconomically integrated community,” said Dara Kovel, regional director for Mercy Housing, the nonprofit housing group working with the city to develop affordable housing projects.

“It’s a disappointing outcome for those working families living in substandard conditions and those commuting to San Juan Capistrano from all over Southern California,” Kovel said.


San Juan Capistrano Mayor Joe Soto said he is a proponent of affordable housing, but not the Calle Rolando project.

“You have to realize the entire impact,” he said. “The social impact, traffic and environmental impact -- you don’t want to create a hostile environment in the neighborhood.”

Kovel said there are no viable options to build a low-income apartment complex in town, even though more than 25% of San Juan Capistrano’s families would qualify for housing assistance.

“The challenge now is, what site in San Juan Capistrano can be brought forward that doesn’t have a lot of community concern?” she said.

“The sites available are either not for sale, or have substantial development challenges. They’re sloped, in flood plains, too small or have access issues,” Kovel said. “This site was flat, integrated into a community with a range of incomes and housing types as well as commercial uses. So I’m wondering, if not here, where?”

Soto said he realizes the city must change its approach to affordable housing, so he is proposing an “inclusionary housing” policy that requires developers to offer less-expensive units within their market-priced projects.


“The whole real estate market has catapulted to a point where the average working family can’t afford to live here in San Juan Capistrano,” Soto said.

“So we’re left with the question, what avenues do the governmental agencies provide for these folks? And we’re not necessarily talking about outsiders, but our kids.”

A two-bedroom apartment in the proposed complex would have rented for about $850 a month to families whose annual incomes are below $37,800, or about $1,020 a month for families with incomes below $57,500.

The median annual family income in Orange County in 2003 was $75,600.

In the last two years, San Juan Capistrano has built more than 70 affordable housing units for seniors. But except for the 14 cottages in the Los Rios historic district, the city has not constructed low-income rental units.

“We’re somewhat behind the eight ball and we’re playing catch up,” Soto said. “The mindset has to change.”

If the city fails to meet its affordable housing standards, housing advocates could sue and the state could cut housing funds and grants to the city.