The list of organizations opposed to real estate developer Ryan Ogulnick's move to phase affordable housing “opt-out” payments in SanTana reads like a “Who's Who” of progressives around town. Speakers took to the podium to voice displeasure at the planning commission meeting last week from Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, the Kennedy Commission, Latino Health Access, and El Centro Cultural de Mexico, to name a few.
The commission received scores of dissenting letters, too, before deadlocking 2-2 on recommending the changes to the city council. Lost in the fight was SanTana's own KidWorks nonprofit, whose Executive Director is councilman David Benavides, but only because they pulled their punches. Maria Ruvalcaba, the group's Youth and Engagement Coordinator, originally emailed the commission a supportive statement for the Housing Opportunities Ordinance, which collects “in lieu” fees upfront from developers who don't want to dedicate a percentage of their project to affordable housing.
The KidWorks letter, signed by Youth and Family Engagement director Frank Bejerano, borrowed from a general template used by other organizations in arguing against Olgunick's requested amendment. It cited the fact that the Vineyards Development Corp. CEO already committed to pay nearly $10 million in “opt-out” fees for his 1,221-unit Heritage Village apartment project near the 55 freeway on the city's south side. Given SanTana's housing crisis, it continued, those funds were needed without further delay. But within a half-hour of sending the letter off, KidWorks appeared to have a sudden change of heart.
“Our organization would like to rescind our letter of support from this item from this meeting today,” Ruvacalba wrote in an email sent just as the planning commission meeting began. No explanation is given as to why and the critical letter never made it back to the commission. The Weekly put the question to KidWorks. “Any letter issued on KidWorks’ behalf that takes a position on a community matter is to first be approved by management,” Sophia Brand, KidWorks' Manager of Marketing and Communications, wrote the Weekly. “In this case, immediately after sending the letter our employee realized that management had not had the opportunity to review and approve the letter. KidWorks will not be taking a position on this matter.”
KidWorks is a nonprofit that began back in 1993 at an apartment on Townsend Street, a densely populated neighborhood in the city that's now under a bitterly contested gang injunction. Before becoming its Executive Director in 2015, council member Benavides started off as a volunteer during his Biola University days. KidWorks continues to offer an array of services like after school programs for youth and support groups for adults. Like any nonprofit, KidWorks depends on donors to do its work, including contributions from Ogulnick, money the nonprofit insists has no bearing on its decision to rescind the letter and stay out of future fights.
The real estate developer has contributed money to help Benavides' political ambitions in the past. When the councilman ran for Mayor against Miguel Pulido in 2012, the Voice of OC reported that Ogulnick chipped in $47,000 through the Stand Up for Santa Ana Coalition political action committee (PAC). The money flows both ways with Ogulnick's Vineyards Development Corp. helping out KidWorks. Just this year, the nonprofit raised more than $100,000 during its 2016 Golf Classic. First place finishers? A fearsome foursome of Vineyards Development Corp. heavy hitters including Ryan Ogulnick.
Will the developer fair as well when his desire to change the Housing Opportunities Ordinance to allow for phasing payment of “opt-out” fees goes before Benavides and the rest of city council?