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Photo by Johan VogelJust a decade ago, former Orange County real-estate broker John Seymour was a Republican state senator who raked in thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from real-estate interests. In return, Seymour could always be counted on to protect the interests of California's powerful property owners.
It was Seymour who helped push through legislation to publicly finance Orange County's "private" toll roads. And it was Seymour who led the Republican attack on a proposed 1990 state law that would have forced landlords to pay back at least 5 percent interest on tenants' security deposits.
In covering that story, even the sympathetic Orange County Register couldn't help but question the cozy relationship between Seymour and California landlords, asking him if he felt it posed any conflict for him as a politician in Sacramento. A defensive Seymour jumped right to the point. "The question really should be, 'John Seymour, do you always vote with apartment-house owners and real-estate interests?'" he responded. "I would remind you that for 18 years, I was in the real-estate business. It is a personal philosophy with me. It has nothing to do with contributions."
Flash forward 10 years. Seymour is now a key player in a project denounced by apartment owners and their sympathizers—including the libertarian editorial writers at the Register—as a state-sanctioned land grab aimed at increasing Anaheim's grip on the neighborhoods surrounding Disneyland.
While he's still in the real-estate business, Seymour now has a kinder, gentler mission, for which he earnes $109,500 per year: managing affordable housing projects throughout Southern California as chief executive officer of the Southern California Housing Development Corp. (SCHDC), a Rancho Cucamonga-based nonprofit organization. Last year, Seymour joined forces with Irvine-based developer the Related Companies of California to work with the city of Anaheim on its highly controversial Jeffrey-Lynne Revitalization Plan.
The city's project calls for tearing down several badly deteriorated apartment buildings in the mostly Latino, working-class neighborhood of Jeffrey-Lynne, which sits in the shadow of the Disneyland Hotel.
Although city officials have made substantial progress in reassuring the neighborhood's tenants that they will be able to play a critical role in the project—seven of the 10 members of the city's recently formed advisory committee will be tenant representatives—they have had much less success in winning over the neighborhood's apartment owners. Anaheim has made little attempt to hide the fact that if Jeffrey-Lynne's landlords won't sell their properties, the city will use eminent domain to seize the land.
Chris Sutton, a Pasadena attorney representing a group of Jeffrey-Lynne landlords, says his clients will sue Anaheim if the city seizes anyone's property. Sutton has even threatened to bring a group of protesting apartment owners to Sacramento, where he said they will challenge Anaheim's efforts to win $24 million in federal affordable housing tax credits administered by the California State Tax Credit Allocation Committee.
Not surprisingly, Seymour has done everything he can to downplay his role in the Jeffrey-Lynne project. In a July 27 interview, Seymour told the Weekly that he's barely even involved in the project, acting merely as an adviser to Related Cos. president Bill Witte, the actual developer.
"We are merely in a support role, an advisory role," Seymour insisted. "Generally speaking, so that you qualify to get tax-exempt financing and tax-exempt credits, a nonprofit organization [like SCHDC] is elected to be the general partner."
It's a remarkably honest yet odd statement for Seymour to make, suggesting that SCHDC exists less for the benefit of those who need affordable housing than for city officials and private developers hoping to come up with a cheaper way of carrying out lucrative redevelopment projects.
Seymour's claim that he's playing only a minor role in the Jeffrey-Lynne project is problematic, however. Although the Anaheim City Council has not formally voted on the matter, the city's Jeffrey-Lynne Revitalization Plan shows that Seymour's nonprofit SCHDC has all but been selected to run the neighborhood as a private, gated community for the next 55 years—a process that will start as soon as Related Cos. completes the necessary renovation work. In one of the plan's numerous references to the services Seymour's organization is expected to provide is the following tidbit: "SCHDC Social Programs and staff will act as liaison between the residents, staff, and property-management staff, ensuring coordination of efforts between all."
That sounds concrete, but Seymour insists SCHDC hasn't actually been chosen by the city to do anything. "We hope to provide property management for the project, but that is not spelled out in the plan," he said. However, when asked if SCHDC would have to submit a bid for that contract, Seymour guessed not. "I don't know that it would be a bid," he said. "That has not been finally decided by the city."
Making matters more complicated is the fact that Bill Witte—Seymour's partner in the deal and chief spokesman for the project outside City Hall—insists SCHDC will help provide property-management services for Jeffrey-Lynne. "I think John is being overcautious in what he's saying," said Witte. "We haven't hidden the fact that we would like [SCHDC] to provide the property-management service."
It's easy to speculate about why Seymour finds himself involved in the project. He served as an Anaheim councilman from 1974 to 1978, and then as mayor until 1982. His tenure as mayor started just one year after Elisa Stipkovich, the city's current redevelopment chief, began working for Anaheim's housing authority.
It may also be that Anaheim and Related Cos. are banking on Seymour's Sacramento ties. Leaving City Hall, he was elected to three straight terms in the state Senate before completing Pete Wilson's U.S. Senate term after Wilson was first elected governor in 1990. A month after Seymour lost the seat to Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Wilson appointed the Republican stalwart to head the California Housing Financing Agency. That happens to be one of the agencies Anaheim is asking to help fund its Jeffrey-Lynne project.
Neither Seymour's involvement in the Jeffrey-Lynne project nor his past relationship with Anaheim City Hall and Sacramento has gone unnoticed by project opponents. At a July 18 community meeting, Green Party activist and Anaheim resident Duane Roberts passed out photographs of Seymour's $1 million home in Indian Wells, along with the question "What does John Seymour know about affordable housing?" Attorney Sutton also denounced Seymour's role in the project. "I think it's just the old political connections," Sutton said. "These entities are not about helping poor people. They are about enriching the people that are involved in those projects."
Witte, who is the former deputy mayor of San Francisco (under Feinstein, coincidentally), claims that his partner's status as a former state official and mayor of Anaheim had nothing to do with Anaheim choosing his company to carry out the Jeffrey-Lynne Revitalization Plan. Witte points out that his previous redevelopment project in Anaheim, Paseo Village, didn't involve Seymour and has been praised by city officials as the model for Jeffrey-Lynne.
"I don't need anyone's political support other than the city's and the community's," Witte exclaimed. "While I happen to like and respect John Seymour, the fact that he is involved with SCHDC was completely irrelevant to my desire to join with them for this project."