Wednesday, March 23, 2011 | The Santa Ana City Council Monday, in a 4-3 vote, approved another loan to Vista Del Rio Housing Partners, L.P. to build an affordable housing project catering to disabled residents, bringing the total amount loaned for the project by the redevelopment agency to nearly $2 million.

The $469,000 loan is the third in two years that council, acting as the  city’s redevelopment authority, has issued the partnership to build the 41-unit housing project on a 3.2 acre site in a northern area of the city overlooking the Santa Ana river bed. In July 2009, the redevelopment agency issued a $500,000 loan through the HOME program, and, in March 2010, that loan was increased to $1.5 million, according to a staff report.

The Vista Del Rio partnership is competing for federal tax credits to build the project and needs subsidies from local agencies to make its bid more competitive, said Conor Weir, project manager at AMCAL Multi-Housing, Inc., one of the project’s managing partners.

“The project was underfunded from the start,” Weir said. He added that he “absolutely hopes” that this would be the last time the partners approach the city for more redevelopment money.

The six-year effort to build the project has been stalled lately because of the failure to win tax credits. The project has also recently come up against resistance from residents near the project site and accusations that residents were not kept informed of the project’s details.

The partners in the project include the Foundation for Affordable Housing, AMCAL Multi-Housing, Inc. and Goodwill of Orange County.

Council members who voted against the plan — including Miguel Pulido, Claudia Alvarez and Carlos Bustamante — said they were concerned that the partners would keep coming back for more redevelopment money. They also pointed out that the partners didn’t seem to be listening to the residents.

“After a while, years turn into decades — and it’s already headed in that direction,” Pulido said, referring to the difficulty the partners are having in securing tax credits.

Orange County gave the city the land on the condition it be used for affordable housing, council members said, and Pulido suggested the money be re-allocated toward another effort that the county would be happy with.

Alvarez also criticized the partners for not reaching out to the impacted neighborhoods and publicly dressed down city staff with a similar complaint.

Alvarez said she requested city staff in October last year to reach out to the neighborhoods. Staffers, Alvarez said, “didn’t take the care” to setup a neighborhood meeting until recently. Staffers then moved the meeting to a spot unusual for community meetings, Alvarez said.

“I still need an explanation on how we have a six month gap from my personal request for staff to go out to the neighborhoods,” Alvarez said. She added that she believes there was an “intentional attempt to have the community quieted by moving meetings to where those meetings don’t usually take place.”

This isn’t the first time Alvarez scrutinized city staff from the dais. Earlier this year, Alvarez sharply criticized then Community Development Agency department head Cindy Nelson and voiced suspicion over how money was being doled out in the agency’s facade improvement rebate program.

Dan Rogers, president and CEO of Goodwill of Orange County, another entity in the partnership, publicly apologized for the lack of communication with residents.

“A lot of this is about respect,” Rogers said. “I’d like to apologize to the neighbors.”

In addition to the perceived lack of communication, a couple of residents against the plan pointed to the lack of park space in the city and said the site would better serve the community as a park for residents to enjoy.

“In that part of the city there’s nothing for the residents that live there,” said Frank Acosta, president of the Concord Neighborhood Association, which represents residents in a neighborhood close to the site.

There was also a debate about the public safety impacts of the project. Alvarez pointed to the river bed as a hot spot of criminal activity. She said the housing project would provide “a lot more pockets” and “a lot more victims.” While Board member Sal Tinajero said he had trouble seeing see the threat coming from disabled residents.

Council members who voted for the plan – including Tinajero, Vincent Sarmiento, Michele Martinez, and David Benavides — noted that the county required the site to be used for affordable housing and hailed a vote for the project as the “right thing to do.” Some also dismissed complaints of lack of communication and said the project had been vetted for several years.

“What better way to provide affordable housing than to a community with special needs,” Sarmiento said.

Benavides said that the planning process included nine community meetings, which, because of community feedback, resulted in tweaks to the project like enhanced lighting and the installation of security cameras.

Tinajero, who has in the past cast votes on ideological grounds, cited his philosophical bottom line that societies needed to do more to fund housing for low-income and disabled residents.

“We need to provide dignified affordable housing for individuals that struggle day in and day out,” Tinajero said.

In a reference to the irony of the debate, Sarmiento reminded council members that the city might not have a redevelopment agency if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate them is pushed through. Sarmiento noted: “This may be moot and just an exercise in democracy.”

Two council members who voted for the loan, Benavides and Martinez, received $249 campaign contributions — one dollar less than the minimum amount to disqualify a council member from voting — from the partners involved in the project, according to the Orange County Register.

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