Commentary: Rent hikes at Bethel Towers will hurt seniors

The Daily Pilot's front-page story (Re. "Council approves tax-free bond to renovate Bethel Towers," July 7) about the $37-million tax-free bond raises many questions.

It stated that, thanks to this deal approved by the City Council, Costa Mesa's low-income seniors would be guaranteed affordable housing at Bethel Towers for 55 years. What it didn't point out is that the project's promise to keep only 20% of the 269 units affordable results in a loss of 215 affordable units!

What was the council thinking? Didn't they question how the units could remain affordable if, as stated in the article, the present monthly income of $80,000 would rise to $250,000? That's an increase of more than 300%, which could only be achieved by raising rents accordingly.

The construction of Bethel Towers was originally funded under Section 202 of a federal housing act, which restricted funding to nonprofits that wanted to provide housing for low-income seniors. Construction loans were given at 3% interest for 50 years. This allowed the nonprofit to charge seniors affordable rent.

If even that low rent was more than 30% of the senior's income, a subsidy under Section 8 would pay the balance. Bethel Towers has worked well for hundreds of Costa Mesa seniors for more than 40 years.

Bethel Towers has obviously been sold to a for-profit developer who promises to keep the complex affordable to low income seniors and yet, if the article is accurate, that would be impossible, except perhaps for 20% of the residents.

Did the council question what the developers determine is an affordable rent for what targeted income — low, very low, moderate? The statement, if the tenant can't afford the rent, the federal government will make up the difference is quite a questionable assumption.

Subsidies are based not only on the person's income but also on rental costs. Traditionally, Section 8 has had limits on the amount of rent someone could pay in order to get a rental subsidy.

Has the 300% increase in rent priced out Bethel Towers residents from a rental subsidy? What kind of magic subsidy is the new developer promising?

He said it was different from the existing subsidy, but there were no details given. Does the council know what the subsidy will be? Did they ask?

I'm wondering how concerned our council was about preserving what has truly been a wonderful example of housing affordable to our city's low income seniors. If they were really concerned, Costa Mesa could have issued the bonds itself and been able to place covenants and restrictions on the property.

Before approving the tax-free, $37-million bond, how closely did they question the developer's promise to maintain the 269 units' affordability? Did they even question how the loss of affordable units will affect the housing element approved in the general plan?

Costa Mesa is required by state law to provide a certain number of very low and low-income housing units. Bethel Towers' 269 affordable low-income units have always helped Costa Mesa in trying to meet its regional housing needs requirement.

As someone who has advocated for affordable housing for many years, it is extremely distressing to see the possibility of losing any units, but the thought of losing so many is truly tragic. The argument we advocates always hear is that the city is built out and we have no room for more affordable housing.

Wouldn't you think we'd do everything we could to preserve what we have?

JEAN FORBTAH is co-founder of Save Our Youth. She lives in Costa Mesa.

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