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    Santa Ana gets 1st of 376 new low-income Orange County apartments
    • June 20, 2023

    Developer National Core’s Legacy Square in Santa Ana kicks off a series of five, new low-income rental complexes bringing 376 units of affordable housing to Orange County by the end of 2024. (Courtesy: National Core)

    Lots of people argue about how to create affordable housing in Orange County. Some people actually build it.

    Take Legacy Square in downtown Santa Ana. The four-story apartment complex kicks off a series of five, new low-income rental projects from developer National CORE that will bring 376 units of affordable housing to Orange County by the end of 2024. The builder from Rancho Cucamonga is holding a grand opening on Wednesday, June 21, for the Santa Ana project with 92 new affordable rental residences – including 33 units dedicated to supporting the homeless.

    Legacy Square, at Santa Ana Boulevard and French Street, will be followed by similar efforts by National CORE that includes two partnerships with local Episcopal churches for low-income senior households.

    In Placentia, 64 units at Santa Angelina – with the help of Church of the Blessed Sacrament – includes 21 units designated for helping homeless. Plans call for an opening by year’s end.

    And in Buena Park, 65 units at Orchard View Gardens with St. Joseph’s Church includes eight units for the homeless. It breaks ground in July with completion expected by fall 2024.

    National CORE is also building 70 units at Mountain View in Lake Forest for low-income families, eight for homeless. It’s almost complete with a fall 2023 opening planned. And Anaheim will get 85 units at Miraflores for low-income families, eight for homeless. It’s expected to open in mid-2024.

    Small deals add up. National CORE owns 9,684 units at 103 developments in California, Texas and Florida – the nation’s 10th largest nonprofit portfolio of affordable housing. And last year, it was the No. 3 nonprofit developer, starting 760 affordable units and completing 101.

    Projects like Legacy Square build momentum for all affordable housing, says Michael Ruane, National CORE’s president. Once the public sees more high-quality projects, resistance to low-income residences declines.

    “These 300 units will help get the next 1,000 built,” he says.

    Rent’s burden

    Yes, these five projects are a tiny slice of Orange County’s rental supply that’s home for 445,000 families, by the Census Bureau’s count.

    But low-income renters are clobbered by housing costs. Note that to qualify for Legacy Square, a two-person household can’t make more than $65,000 – 60% of typical local earnings.

    Think about Census stats that track households “burdened” by rent – folks paying 30%-plus of income toward housing costs.

    My trusty spreadsheet tells me that in Orange County, 95% of 141,000 renting households earning less than $50,000 a year were housing-cost burdened in 2021. Compare that financially stressed flock to the 38% of the 304,000 renters making above $50,000 who were “burden” by housing expenses.

    Statewide, 90% of California renters earning less than $50,000 are housing burdened vs. 33% of renters making more. And nationally? It’s 79% of renters earning less than $50,000 are burdened vs. 20% of those making more.

    Ruane reminds us that low-income projects “are for workers. It’s not a shelter. These are people who have incomes.”

    Tough juggle

    The Santa Ana endeavor was “one of the the most complicated deals we’ve done,” Ruane says.

    How do you get a deal on land when for-profit developers gobble up most buildable parcels? To create Legacy Square, National CORE partnered with Santa Ana Methodist Church to use the church’s under-utilized property for the project. The developer rents the land from the church.

    And government aid is often required, too. Part of Legacy Square’s financial juggle includes a $25 million grant from the state government’s Department of Housing and Community Development and Strategic Growth Council.

    Some $10 million of that grant went to local community improvements, including a small park and transit upgrades. Legacy Square is next door the Santa Ana’s emerging light-rail service.

    And filling Legacy Square with tenants isn’t easy. Not because of demand: there’s a long waiting list. But because National CORE and partners must verify financial qualifications of folks lucky enough to win a lottery to get a shot at these housing bargains.

    “We are not done,” Ruane says. “We are working on the next pipeline .. It’s  rewarding to celebrate the five coming .. but there’s more to come.”

    Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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    ​ Orange County Register