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Santa Ana rolls back affordable housing restrictions on developers

Catherine Carrasco, 53, in Santa Ana.
Catherine Carrasco, 53, lives with her two daughters and one son in a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Despite opposition from dozens of residents, the Santa Ana City Council decided this week to reduce affordable housing requirements to encourage development during the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council voted 5 to 2, with Vicente Sarmiento and Nelida Mendoza opposing, to approve revisions to the Housing Opportunity Ordinance, which requires developers to abide by several rules to support affordable housing in the city, including paying an in-lieu fee of $15 for every habitable square foot. The money was used to support affordable housing development.

After listening for hours to angry and concerned residents who have been wrestling with the financial consequences and uncertainties of the pandemic, the council decided to roll back the fee to $5 for every habitable square foot.

The item will return to the council for a second reading on Sept. 1.

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“As we are talking about private sector, market-rate developers and skilled laborers, the folks we aren’t talking about are 80% of our residents who live below the moderate income levels and are earning less than $50,000 a year,” Sarmiento said.

“Unfortunately, what has happened is this has turned into something that is really an abandonment and a shifting of priorities away from serving the families that we are supposed to represent, and giving them an opportunity to live in a dignified place.”

Sarmiento went on to say that the revisions will encourage developers to produce market-rate housing that most Santa Ana residents cannot afford.

Supporters of the decision held that the regulations need to be amended to encourage development, which has become all the more challenging amid the pandemic.

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Mayor Miguel Pulido said the pandemic has stalled construction in the city.

“We are in this pandemic right now and so I think it’s fundamental to try to figure out how to lower the threshold to entry into construction here in town,” Pulido said. “There hasn’t been any jobs for anybody because there is no construction whatsoever. I would think for now it would be most prudent to try to stimulate things.”

Several residents echoed Sarmiento’s position, pointing to the threat of evictions and homelessness.

With officials and medical experts telling people to stay at home as much as possible during COVID-19, where do those who don’t have a place to shelter go? It looks as though help is on the way to house the homeless in Orange County.

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The City Council has sought to aid residents with rent and evictions freezes. But residents are concerned about what happens to them after those expire.

“Housing is a human right,” said resident Lindsay Anderson. “People are hungry and people are working multiple jobs for their families. At the same time, trying to stay safe and protect their families. You’re just adding more problems on top of that. Homelessness is growing so much in Santa Ana and you guys live in such a position of privilege to turn the other way completely unaffected.”

City Council candidate Jessie Lopez said the Housing Opportunity Ordinance is beneficial to the community and shouldn’t be amended.

“It allows us to have the opportunity to have affordable housing that meets our unique needs,” Lopez said. “However, we have people at the dais that prioritize developers over the people they were elected to represent. Why are the concerns of developers being prioritized over the needs of our families? Real estate developers are bottom-line oriented. They care about profit, not about the well-being of our community or the character of our neighborhood.”

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Councilman Phil Bacerra contended that the Housing Opportunity Ordinance hasn’t worked in its original iteration, pointing out that no in-lieu fees had been collected over the last fiscal year and only $17 million has been collected since the ordinance’s inception.

“The intentions behind the [Housing Opportunity Ordinance] were good but [it] has failed to deliver on its promises,” Bacerra said.

He also pointed out that the city has seen the construction of more than 1,000 affordable housing units over the last several years, which is eight times more than the state-mandated goals for affordable housing.

Mayor Pro Tem Juan Villegas agreed that Santa Ana has been a champion of affordable housing.

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“We can’t be the affordable housing area for the entire county,” Villegas said. “These other cities need to do the same thing, they need to step up.”

Brazil writes for Times Community News.


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