As half of Orange County still lacks an approved plan to fulfill their state-mandated housing goals, county supervisors this week wondered aloud whether they could share credit with cities they partnered with on motel-to-home conversions. 

These conversions were made possible by state funding for a program that turned motels into livable units in an effort to get people off the streets.

Sharing credits with these incorporated cities could bring the county closer to its own state housing goals, which in the county’s case intends to expand supply in unincorporated areas, while increasing affordability in an increasingly unaffordable state. 

A look at the county’s official progress so far shows that since the new cycle began in October, 2021, the county has recorded faster progress on expensive housing versus moderate and affordable housing.

A breakdown of that time frame, included in the staff report for Tuesday’s discussion, reported the production of 21 extremely low-income units, 48 low-income units, zero moderate units, and 325 higher-end expensive units. 

OC Supervisor Katrina Foley said the county’s going uncredited for its involvement in a motel-to-home conversion program for the unhoused with onsite supportive services, known as Project Homekey, which is made possible through state funding which the county then passes on to other cities.

The projects are located in cities like Stanton, with the Stanton Inn, Riviera Motel and Tahiti Motel conversions expected to conclude this summer, as well as in Anaheim with the planned conversion of Studio 6.

[Read: OC Cities Increasingly Look to Motels to Help House Homeless People]

View Project Homekey sites in OC here.

Another project site: Costa Mesa, a city where Foley previously served as Mayor, and where a Motel 6 is being turned into over 80 homes for seniors and veterans.

“We’re building a lot of units with Project Homekey. A lot of homes for veterans, for seniors, for our most low-income community members. What do we need to do to get credit for those in the county?” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.

[Read: From Motel 6 to Affordable Housing: Conversion Underway in Costa Mesa]

Molly Nichelson, a spokesperson for the County of Orange, described the agency’s role in the Costa Mesa project in an email earlier this month — that the agency received $10 million from the state for the project.

“The County also committed $5.35 million and 30 Project Based Vouchers for the development of the project,” Nichelson wrote.

In response to Foley’s questions on Tuesday, county staff said that in order to get credit for Project Homekey units, county officials would have to have an agreement in place with the cities where motels are being converted. 

Nichelson said the county has no such agreements in place, nor does the county have agreements for people in unincorporated areas to access Homekey programs.

“Whether the County receives Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) credit for a County-funded, or partially funded housing project, does not govern if someone from unincorporated County has access to a unit of housing,” she said in the email.

There are six Homekey conversions in OC, according to a list of sites Nichelson provided.

“We’re doing a lot in the space of housing, and we want to make sure that it’s all included here. And it is frustrating that the amount that we’re doing – we’re actually doing more than a lot of counties,” Foley said.

“I know when Mr. Kim and Supervisor Chaffee and Sarmiento and I went to Sacramento, we heard that pretty loud and clear from many of our legislators, the governor’s office, that we’re doing a lot. And so the fact that we’re not getting credit for it is very frustrating.” 

As of Tuesday, 19 cities in Orange County as well as the county itself – which oversees unincorporated territory — do not have an approved housing plan certified by the state, according to a state database.

Often, the lack of certified plans stems from back-and-forths between the state officials.

State housing officials will deny a document they deem unsatisfactory and a local jurisdiction will then make changes and submit for another review. 

County of Orange officials on Tuesday said the current draft document was their third iteration of the Housing plan.

[Read: Half of Orange County Lacks State Approved Housing Plans as HB Reignites Debate on Mandates]

The county has been tasked with zoning for 10,340 new homes in unincorporated territory – many of which will come from the massive planned community that’s still in development around Rancho Mission Viejo, off Ortega Highway. 

That included plans to open another section of the ranch-planned community in January, which would have featured 145 deed-restricted senior housing and 134 market-rate homes.

However, in response to Foley’s questions on Tuesday, county staff said that opening was delayed. 

Foley attributed it to state regulations around fire hazards that posed insurance problems for the area’s homes.

“One of the challenges that we are facing with beating our RHNA numbers, there’s a clear conflict between the state’s fire prevention maps, which are preventing insurance from being issued and the state mandates to build housing. 

She pointed to the “inability” to obtain fire insurance for homes in high-severity zones,
“which is essentially, like (supervisorial) District Three and District Five, almost our entire districts are in the red zone.”

“So it’s come to my attention that the building has stopped. Lennar has put a pause on selling homes – everyone is stopped until we can figure out this insurance issue,” Foley said. 

On the issue of sharing credits, Sarmiento recalled the time when other OC cities sought to piggyback off his city, where Santa Ana’s housing construction progress had exceeded the state’s quota. 

“We were sued for that by some other neighboring cities who wanted to piggyback onto those numbers,” he said. “Which is a disingenuous effort for what I think the whole goal is here, which is to make sure we spread the responsibility, and everybody has that shared obligation to provide affordability, because we know it’s not unique to one area of our county.”

OC Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Wagner called the process of the state mandated housing goals an “utter mess and a disgrace and should be an embarrassment to the state of California.”

“To the point where the state auditor essentially said that the numbers the HCD foisted on the entire state are essentially made up and not driven in any way by science, not driven by an actual look at what really is needed and is doable,” he said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @photherecord.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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