Orange County officials are moving forward with a new housing plan that could bring over 10,000 new homes to unincorporated county – but one supervisor is questioning just how realistic that plan is.
It comes as the county’s already far behind on their previous housing goals – echoing struggles faced by just about every other county and city in the Southern California region.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Katrina Foley pointed out that one of the sites included in the plan was the Santa Ana Country Club, and that there was no plan to turn it into housing.
“It’s owned by private shareholders who won’t have any interest in giving up their golf course,” Foley said. “I want our housing element to be reflective of what is real.”
Despite her criticism, Foley voted along with the rest of her colleagues to send the proposed plan to state officials for approval.
But the country club isn’t the only spot in the county’s plan that’s already developed.
A Voice of OC review of the plan found that many of the proposed housing sites are already home to a variety of businesses, including gas stations, car washes, medical centers and strip malls.
But there were also large swaths of undeveloped land that are slated for new housing developments in Rancho Mission Viejo, Brea’s oil fields and Coyote Canyon in Newport Beach.
Of those units, Rancho Mission Viejo’s were the only ones classified as “being developed,” and are set to bring 799 low income housing units to South Orange County, along with over 7,000 moderate and above moderate income housing units.
So far, the county has completed 323 homes that are all classified as “above moderate income,” for their new housing plan, which is set to wrap up by 2030 with a goal of having completed over 10,000 units.
The City of Orange’s housing plan was rejected by state officials for proposing development sites that were already occupied by other businesses and parking lots.
Huntington Beach City Council members rejected adopting a plan outright and took the state to court over the issue, saying they wouldn’t develop all the units being mandated by the state because it wasn’t what’s best for the city.
It comes as cities throughout the region are increasingly eying aging malls and shopping centers as redevelopment chances for new housing.
Orange County’s median income sits at nearly $128,000 according to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which also encourages, or in some cases forces, local governments to zone more housing for low income residents.
Acutely low, extremely low, and very low income residents all make less than 50% of the county’s median income each year, under the state’s rules.
A four-person household qualifies as low income if they make less than roughly $115,000 a year. The same household would be very low income if they earn less than $71,150 a year, while extremely low is less than $43,050 annually.
While the county’s housing plan was turned in to the state Department of Housing and Community Development in Oct. 2021, the department has repeatedly rejected the county’s plans and asked for more changes, refusing to sign off.
“Ultimately, state housing laws are effective only with the cooperation of local governments,” said Melinda Coy, the housing department’s Proactive Housing Accountability Chief in a letter to the county. “However, housing elements are essential to developing a blueprint for growth and are a vital tool to address California’s prolonged housing crisis.”
And 16 of the county’s 34 cities have yet to get the final sign off from the state, including larger cities like Anaheim, Fullerton and Garden Grove.
A Flashpoint in Orange County’s New Housing Developments
It’s a dilemma faced by nearly every city council and county board of supervisors in Southern California:
Where do you build new housing?
And what should that housing look like?
Just before approving their new housing plan, Orange County Supervisors also got into a lengthy debate over a controversial development dubbed Ranch Hills in north Tustin, which will tear down the Tustin Hills Racquet and Pickleball Club to put up 34 single family homes.
Many of the residents who live in homes surrounding the project came to the meeting and encouraged the county supervisors to kill the project, saying they were promised when they moved in that the club would stay no matter what.
Supervisors Doug Chafee and Foley both argued in favor of the project, calling it a “quality project,” that would “provide housing for the next generation,” adding they couldn’t do much else while facing the state’s strict housing mandates.
The county is charged with zoning for 10,406 new units by 2030 under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment plan for Southern California.
Supervisor Don Wagner was the lone vote against the project, pointing out that it wouldn’t provide any affordable housing options and that it would negatively impact the surrounding residents who were already living there.
“This project is not cooked yet,” Wagner said. “As nice as they try to spin it, this is not the kind of project that’s going to help us with our affordability crisis in housing that’s running throughout the state of California.”
So far, the county hasn’t built any affordable units, and has built just over 300 more units that are classified by the state as “above moderate income.”
Nicole Walsh, a lawyer with the county counsel’s office, also said that the county would be hard pressed to defend themselves in court if they killed the project, which Wagner decried as a breach of attorney client privilege that would cripple the county’s legal defense if they’d decided to fight the project.
“I had precisely this discussion with counsel about going there in this hearing and undermining a case,” Wagner said. “I think you’re going to get lucky this board’s not going to go in that direction.”
Supervisor Andrew Do recused himself from voting on the project.
With the housing plan’s submission, county leaders now have to wait on the state’s housing department to sign off.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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