Santa Ana Affordable Housing In Trouble After City Council Votes

The new SanTana city council carried the torch of its predecessor by unanimously voting last Tuesday to strengthen its Sanctuary City resolution with an ordinance giving it some anti-Trump huevos. But while council members inch closer to helping undocumented immigrants feel like SanTana is a safe haven against deportation, there's still the question of where they and other low-income residents can find an affordable place to call home.

A controversial plan by Heritage Village, the city's largest mixed-use project, to undermine SanTana's Housing Opportunity Ordinance (HOO) by allowing delayed payments of its affordable housing “opt-out” fees finally came before council last week after its own delays. Also on the agenda: picking up the tab to shore up the “opt-out” money Heritage promised in the original agreement to the 69-unit Amcal affordable housing project on East First Street with a multi-million dollar loan of city funds.

Before Tuesday night's vote, Heritage Village developer Ryan Ogulnick  tried to change the HOO itself in July before an evenly split planning commission sent him back to the drawing board. Last month, Heritage Village returned with a new plan to amend only its development agreement in order to get the phased payments; the planning commission saw through the ruse and voted 5-1 against it.

With the clock nearing midnight, the council took up discussion on the proposed amendment during its December 20 meeting. City staff favored passage despite the planning commission's vote. Rather than paying $9.7 million in “opt-out” fees upfront when the first building permit is issued, Ogulnick wanted to dole out just $2.7 million while spreading $6.95 million over two additional phases of construction. The timetable the city provided has the three construction phase payments slated to start next month and be completed by the following winter.

As they have throughout the fight, community advocates spoke out against the move, this time tying it to the Sanctuary City vote. “In addition to protections, we urge that we also see opportunities for our community, ” said former council candidate Ana Urzua, campaign coordinator for Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities. She asked people in the audience to stand up in support. “Because we cannot wait until investments trickle down to Santa Ana residents, we believe that we must not phase the payments of this project until we see a direct benefit to the families that are still living in the harsh conditions of overcrowding.”

Heritage Village already has enjoyed the city rezoning its 18-acre plot, Urzua added, and had been grandfathered into a $9 per square foot in-lieu fee rate before asking for delayed payments. The market-rate housing project is the first to have stated what project should get their “opt-out” fees under the HOO since it was amended in November 2015.

When debate turned to the dais, councilman David Benavides asked Executive Director Hassan Haghani what would happen if Heritage Village didn't complete phased construction as planned. “The city will be liable and required to return that money,” Haghani answered.

“We wouldn't even be here if the applicant would have complied with the ordinance as it was written,' councilman Vicente Sarmiento remarked. “The developer, from what I recall, went to seek some financing, the financing got difficult and now they're asking for some relief.”

But the only real opposition came from councilwoman Michele Martinez. “I cannot support an agreement that our planning commission denied,” she said. Martinez followed up with questions about the lack of an Request for Proposal process to plug the more than six-million dollar gap with public funds. “At this moment and time, it's really up to the city council to hold the developer to the agreement that he said  he was going to fulfill. This is not the city's obligation.”

Affordable housing advocates gave cheer, but the moment wouldn't last long. Despite Martinez's council colleagues espousing support for low-income rental units, all of them wanted to work with the developer on amending the agreement, including Benavides, who has nonprofit funding ties with Ogulnick through KidWorks, where the councilman serves as Executive Director. Benavides isn't the sole beneficiary. During this most recent election cycle, Sarmiento and Jose Solorio received campaign contributions from Ogulnick, his family and Heritage Village-connected people like Pamela Sapetto, a consultant for Vineyards Development, the company behind the mixed-used project. In the end, only Martinez voted against allowing phased payments.

With Heritage and Amcal separated into two agenda items, a much shorter discussion followed on plans to make a commitment to fund Amcal's affordable housing development. Joese Hernandez of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) earned the comment of the night, supporting Amcal's “bittersweet” moment while being completely soured on Heritage Village. “What just happened is truly a shame,” he said. “It just seems that if you can hire high-priced lawyers and contribute during election season, you'll get your way every time.”

A council majority followed by approving the funding commitment to Amcal 4-2 with Mayor Miguel Pulido and Martinez voting against it. Benavides, who complained of “fading fast” during a coughing spell throughout the whole Heritage Village discussion, was absent.

But the story doesn't end there. After the council meeting ended, Juan Villegas told the city clerk that he mistakenly voted in favor of the Amcal affordable housing project and requested that it be put back on the agenda at a future council meeting. The loan commitment needs four votes to move forward, which it wouldn't have had if rookie councilman Villegas didn't make his mistake. The public funds for Amcal had been expected to be discussed in February and would need the support of five council members to happen.

“Heritage Village might even get away with not providing affordable housing at all,” Urzua told the Weekly after learning of the latest twist. “If things turn out badly for Amcal, we will lose 69 units of the most inexpensive housing and the city will have let the developer off the hook.”

The Weekly's questions to SanTana's city attorney about Villegas' request for a revote went unanswered over the weekend.

“For us, it's important that when they make these decisions to incentivize market-rate housing that the community is getting a benefit,” Cesar Covarrubias, Executive Director of the Kennedy Commission, told the Weekly. “It's our desire that the city council show the same commitment to affordable housing that they're showing to market-rate housing. Affordable housing is a crisis in the city, and we believe that the city council needs to be responsive to that.”

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