A Groundbreaking Day
Affordable apartments for families, including access to Irvine’s public schools, parks and safe communities, is part of the master plan at Great Park Neighborhoods
By Kedric Francis
Dignitaries wearing hardhats and holding shovels at new construction sites is nothing new. Symbolic groundbreaking ceremonies are part of the process for many new projects. But the recent groundbreaking gathering at Beacon Park in Irvine’s Great Park Neighborhoods was different. It represented the tireless work and vision of numerous individuals, nonprofits and businesses over almost two decades, including those that joined forces as the El Toro Housing Initiative Collaboration (or ETHIC) Housing Trust. And all had a common goal: to improve lives by bringing affordable housing to the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
When Luminaira and Espaira at Beacon Park are complete and ready for occupancy in 2017, they will join Solaira at Pavilion Park as the first phase of affordable rental communities at Great Park Neighborhoods. Ultimately, this master-planned, mixed-use community planned by FivePoint adjacent to the Orange County Great Park is envisioned by FivePoint to include 1,056 affordable units.
Meetings to strategize about housing options started soon after the Navy announced that the Orange County base, which served the country in war and peacetime from 1942 until 1999, was closing. Fast-forward to a summer day in 2016, and many of those who worked shoulder-to-shoulder for two decades to bring affordable housing to the base gathered to celebrate their success.
“Irvine has grown to be one of the greatest cities in the country,” said Emile Haddad, chairman and CEO of FivePoint, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony. “But Irvine has an affordability issue.”
Statistics support Haddad’s statement, both in Irvine and in greater Orange County. The median income in Irvine is $85,000, and an affordable rent at that income is $2,125 per month, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition (nlihc.org) report. Someone making 30 percent of the median income can only afford $638 a month to rent in Orange County. At that rate, a minimum-wage employee would have to work 137 hours a week to earn enough to make a two-bedroom unit affordable, assuming 30 percent of their income went to rent.
Countywide, the coalition reports there are 419,139 rental households, or 42 percent of total households. In Irvine, nearly half of the total households, or 39,332 homes, are rented. Of that, the city of Irvine says 3,000 units or 13 percent are affordable (cityofirvine.org/ affordablehousing).
However, the ratio of affordable to market rate units at Great Park Neighborhoods is currently closer to 22 percent because of Solaira’s 221 units.
“Our mission is measured by the quality of life we can provide in our community,” Haddad says. “We are proud today because 22 percent of the 1,000 families who live [in Great Park Neighborhoods] are seniors who meet the low and very low income requirement.”
Luminaira and Espaira will add another 166 affordable units to the mix, this time for families. The two and three bedroom apartments will rent to qualified families for $600 to $1100 per month, Haddad says, which is less than a third of the market rate.
To find a comparable unit at the same rate elsewhere in the region, someone employed in Irvine would have to commute 45 miles each way, likely spending up to three hours per day driving.
“This community [Luminaira and Espaira] will eliminate 7 million miles of vehicle traffic every year,” Haddad estimates, based on a similar commute combined for all new residents in the two communities. “As we look to the future, we have to find a way to bring jobs to housing and housing to jobs.”
Other speakers at the event included Irvine Mayor Steven Choi; Bill Hammerle, the former commander of Marine Corps Air Station Tustin and FivePoint’s vice president of special projects; FivePoint executive VP Lynn Jochim; Bill Witte, chairman and CEO of Related California; Ken Robertson, CEO of Riverside Charitable Corporation; and Allen Baldwin, who served as executive director of the Orange County Community Housing Corp. for 35 years.
Seated in the front row was Baldwin’s successor, Nora Mendez, the current leader of OC Community Housing, the nonprofit that owns and operates 225 units of affordable housing in OC. Mendez and her family moved into affordable housing in Garden Grove when she was 10 years old. Later, while taking courses at Santa Ana College, she went to work for Baldwin as a file clerk. Some 20 years later she runs the organization.
In their remarks, several speakers focused on the opportunity for lower income kids to have access to the excellent Irvine public school system, including the new Beacon Park School opening in August a few blocks from the communities now under construction.
“Those families that live here will have the benefit of world-class amenities, the best schools in the nation and all the things that make Irvine so successful,” said Bill Witte.
“One of the most delightful things [in having affordable housing here] is the Irvine school system,” said Allen Baldwin. “We will work very hard so all the kids coming out of our school system will go on to be college graduates.”
And of the kids who will grow up in the new communities, Ken Robertson said, “The people that will live here will be tomorrow’s leaders.”