The SVN story about the Steadfast project ("Steadfast proposal debated," Dec. 16) reads almost like a press release from the developer. I have nothing against real estate developers; I wish I had become one years ago and made a lot of money. The story does illustrate, however, how small cities and their residents get manipulated by an unholy alliance of "public interest law firms" and developers who fund them. I sat in on the project as a member of the Planning Commission and of the Design Review Committee from the beginning. I noticed a few things.
First, Mission Viejo WAS affordable housing when it was built. Inflation has pushed home prices out of reach for many, but state intervention makes things worse. The older planned communities, like Mission Viejo, were laid out to be housing for commuters to Los Angeles. When I moved here in 1972, the traffic flow was south to north in the morning all the way to East LA. In the years following, the flow reversed as Irvine developed industrial parks and high technology made space requirements much less for successful industry. Now the morning traffic is heavier southbound once you pass Irvine. The reverse is true of the afternoon commute. The whole 91 commuting problem is related to the industrial development just north of us.
Later cities benefited from the design change, and Rancho Santa Margarita was planned with room for industrial parks with jobs for local residents. If Mission Viejo had followed the precedent of the Irvine Ranch, RSM and Ladera Ranch and the planned communities still to be built along Route 74 would all be part of Mission Viejo. There would be plenty of room for affordable housing units. That didn't happen. There is still a lot of room to the east for good planning of low-income housing. The only reason Mission Viejo is under siege by these people is politics. Orange County votes Republican, and the state legislature couldn’t care less about our quality of life. The "public interest law firms" that accuse us of failing to accommodate low-income housing are, themselves, funded by developers and court awards of legal fees. "Public interest" has little to do with it. They are the club the developers have to punish cities that resist change.
About 10 years ago, when the old city council was dominated by developer interests (If you doubt that, read their paeans to the Ranch in the Op-ed pages), several huge apartment projects were approved over the objections of thousands of residents. Was there any "affordable housing" included in those projects? No. They were presented as luxury units, as laughable then as the present assurances about the Steadfast project. The need for affordable housing lay undiscovered until later. The reporter, who was probably in grade school when that development was approved, says we "failed" to comply with state standards. Those standards, of course, are elastic and expand at will.
The Steadfast project was interesting for several reasons. First, I noticed that there were separate entrances for the "senior units" that were in the original version. Why two entrances for a small area? Then I noticed a high fence separating the two zones, fencing in the children of the low-income residents. Then I noticed the lack of a play area of any size. That probably has something to do with the one-bedroom design now in the plans. The buyers of the high-priced homes wanted to be fenced off from the children of the low income neighbors, or at least the developer seemed to assume so. The local residents are concerned about a confluence of low-income housing in that area; Lake Forest has an apartment zone across the street. There is also a "day worker" pick-up site nearby suggesting a developing ghetto in the making.
The project might work as a residential development without the affordable component, but the money to be made from government subsidy is tempting. The affordable development alone might be worthwhile, but the site is zoned commercial and we need commercial space for future industry, lacking in our small city. It is also an area with other factors that worry local residents, such as the high concentration of rental units across the street in Lake Forest. There are thousands of acres being developed right now to our east. It would be a small matter to set aside some of that for affordable housing. We would like to be left alone, but that probably won't happen. There is too much money to be made by people who don't live here and care nothing for our lives.
Michael T Kennedy, M.D.
Former member, Planning and Transportation Commission