Homeless Base

Photo by Keith MayIn the past few weeks, the daily newspapers have trumpeted a new housing crisis in Orange County, as the booming economy drives rental rates skyward. One solution lies in plain sight, beyond the chainlink fence that surrounds the former Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro.

Thanks to the county's controversial plan to turn the El Toro base into an international airport, however, few of the more than 1,188 units of family housing and numerous military barracks—which could provide emergency shelter to 4,380 homeless or low-income individuals—are likely to be turned over to new residents.

The situation has so far barely registered among local officials and housing advocates despite recent stories in the dailies decrying OC's last-place ranking among the nation's 45 largest metropolitan areas in providing affordable housing to low-income residents.

Transferring El Toro housing to shelter organizations might reduce the pressure on housing prices. But county officials say that isn't going to happen. When the Navy Department conveys ownership of El Toro to the county sometime in the summer or fall of 2000, officials plan to bulldoze every unit of housing at the base except for a single bachelor officers quarters building, which the county hopes to turn into a tourist hotel.

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"The plan as it stands now is for the family housing units to be demolished," said Ellen Call, corporate communications director for the El Toro Program office.

There is at least one important obstacle to the county's airport plan, however: the anti-airport Safe and Healthy Communities Act, which is currently scheduled for a vote by county residents in March 2000. If the county ballot measure passes, it would require two-thirds approval by county voters before officials could approve plans to develop any airport, jail or landfill in residential areas of Orange County.

While Irvine city councilman and airport foe Larry Agran hopes the Safe and Healthy Communities Act will help stop the airport, he described the vacant housing at El Toro and on the smaller Tustin Marine Corps station as an "absolute scandal that has its roots in the Clinton/Gore administration. The Clinton/Gore Department of Navy, the Clinton/Gore Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Clinton/ Gore base-reuse policies have completely failed," Agran charged in an interview Friday.

"We have more than 1,000 usable housing units that have been abandoned and are now deteriorating," Agran continued, "and all this is happening in the midst of a housing crisis in Orange County. There is absolutely no reason why an emergency series of orders can't be issued to put those housing units into play. It is a scandal and a moral outrage that we have a serious housing crisis in the county that is being compounded by perfectly usable, ready-to-go housing units that are being held hostage by a county airport policy that is completely bankrupt."

There's a glimmer of hope in nearby Tustin, where city officials have asked the federal government to turn over 50 units at the smaller Marine Corps base in that city for future affordable housing. Under the city's conversion plan, a developer would rehabilitate the buildings free-of-cost to five nonprofit homeless and transitional housing agencies: Irvine-based Families Forward, Human Options, the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter, OC Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army.

Unfortunately, Tustin's plan has collected dust over the four years since the city first submitted it to the federal government. The problem is a regrettable but unavoidable one: bureaucratic red tape between the city and the federal government that has prevented both from approving the plan.

"We made the housing recommendations in the reuse plan and the military will need to approve that plan," explained Dana Ogdon, Tustin's senior project manager. "And they can't do that until they approve our environmental impact review (EIR)," a massive study required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We can't adopt a zoning plan until the military adopts our reuse plan," Ogdon continued. "And they can't do that until our EIR is done. For a number of reasons, that has taken some time. At this point, it looks like it will be done by February or March of next year."

Meanwhile, the city's EIR may face court challenges, as is common with potentially disruptive projects such as converting a military base to civilian use, Ogdon noted. Put simply, it could take several more years for Tustin to turn over any houses to low-income families.

"We'd love to do this faster, but it's very a difficult and complex process," Ogdon complained.

Providers of housing for the needy have been left to tough out the bureaucratic merry-go-round.

"We've had sort of a floating timetable," confirmed Margie Wakeham, director of Families Forward, a nonprofit organization that provides temporary and transitional housing for single mothers and low-income families in Irvine and that hopes to obtain 14 affordable housing units at the Tustin base once the city acquires the land.

"We thought at one time that we might get in as early as 1997," Wakeham said. "That didn't happen. Then I thought we'd be in there by last year, but now it could take as many as three to five years. The frustration for us is driving down Harvard Boulevard and seeing all this housing just standing there vacant."

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