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The following is a press release from an organization unaffiliated with Voice of OC. The views expressed here are not those of Voice of OC.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

April 21, 2021

Laguna Hills Mall Redevelopment:  Great Potential for Missed Opportunity

Laguna Hills, California – April 17, 2021

Media Contact:  Rona Henry, rona.s.henry@gmail.com, 609-216-1784

On April 27th, the Laguna Hills City Council will vote on a project called “The Village at Laguna Hills” – the redevelopment of its Mall, at the 68 acre site right off the I-5 El Toro exit. 

Close to shopping, a bus depot, schools, and jobs, “This is an ideal location to include housing that is affordable for our essential workforce and those, like our seniors and people on disability, who are on fixed incomes”, said Rev. Kent Doss, minister for Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation serving South Orange County. “Our faith, like most, believes in building fair and equitable communities. To me that means essential workers being able to afford to live somewhere in the town that they support with their labor.”

Village at Laguna Hills Site Plan

Much of the Mall has been fenced off and the interior of the mall has been closed since 2018 as the plans have been reworked to add more housing.  The proposed new mixed-use project would include four office buildings, a hotel, theater, shops, restaurants, a park in the center, and up to 1,500 housing units.  

According to the Development Agreement between the City of Laguna Hills and the applicant for the project, MGP FUND X LAGUNA HILLS, LLC,  the development will include up to 200 affordable units out of up to 1500 housing units – to be integrated into 5 residential buildings over the course of 15 to 20 years.   Of the 200 affordable units to be built, with a 55 year deed restriction, 100 would be for moderate-income and 100 would be for low-income. 

“That may sound good,” says Rona Henry, Chair of Welcoming Neighbors Home, a homelessness and affordable housing ministry of Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Congregation.   “But low-income housing is for those earning $71,750 and moderate income is $86,500.”

She went on to say that “Rental rates for low and moderate income housing are very close to market rate.  For two bedrooms, according to 2020 rental limits of the California State Tax Credit Allocation Committee,  the low-income rentals start at $1,441 per month and can be as high as $2,306, and moderate is even higher. That’s up to $27,672 per year in rent – more than the average retail worker earns.”

Ms. Henry pointed out that “The Village presents a unique opportunity to provide homes for households those earning less than $50,000 per year.”

Denise Fleury, a member of the Welcoming Neighbors Home leadership team, has reviewed the Fiscal Impact Analysis done by Kosmont, and the City Council/Planning Agency Staff Report, and she notes “Most of the jobs identified in these two reports will NOT qualify these employees for housing at the currently proposed low- income housing rates.”    According to the Fiscal Impact Analysis, 2,900 on-site jobs will be created for 250,000 square feet of restaurants, hotel, and retail with an average salary of $43K. The staff report names the following low wage jobs as eligible for the Village’s affordable housing: Office clerk $33,000, Retail worker $25,000 and waiter/waitress $25,000.

But, according to Ms. Fleury, “The 2020 table for Orange County Income Limits shows clearly that most of the jobs identified in these two reports will NOT qualify these employees for housing at the currently proposed low- income housing rates.  It is also important to remember that nearly one fourth (23%) of already existing Laguna Hills households earn less than $50,000/year; the proposed low/moderate income units will not be financially available for these current residents either.”

The Staff Report notes that with this Village development, 60% of the Laguna Hills Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) for the next 8 years will be met.  “What worries me,” said Rona Henry, “is that the city is largely built out. Where will the other 817 units of very- low and low- income housing go in Laguna Hills?  Why prioritize market rate housing before housing that is affordable to retail and service workers and those on fixed incomes?  We haven’t had any affordable housing built in this city since the 1980’s – meanwhile market rate housing flourishes.”

Rev Doss also said “It’s been since the 1980’s that substantial affordable housing has been built in Laguna Hills.  The supply has not kept up with the demand.”    A case in point is Rancho Niquel apartments built in the 1980’s.  Ann Owens, a housing advocate, said “When I called to see if they had vacancies, I was told they didn’t and the waiting list was 5 to 10 yearsl”

Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, a community-based non-profit that works with residents and community organizations to increase the production of homes affordable to lower income households in Orange County, said “Since Laguna Hills is largely built-out, it may mean that the city will need to up-zone existing buildings in other areas of the city to create adequate sites for extremely- low and very- low-income units. 

The Laguna Hills Village site offers the best opportunity to accommodate the City’s expanded RHNA needs for very- low and low-income units.”  

Welcoming Neighbors Home Initiative is a ministry of Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, located at 23676 Birtcher Dr, Lake Forest, CA 92630.  In Tapestry’s Welcoming Neighbors Home Initiative, we work to serve and to advocate for people experiencing homelessness and those who are at risk of losing their home.  Tapestry has a vision to be a transformational home for liberal spirituality and a dynamic community leader in South Orange County and beyond.

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