Opinion: A Fresh Look at the Irvine Community Land Trust
The Irvine Watchdog has published a number of articles on the Irvine Community Land Trust (ICLT) in recent years. Some of the articles have been critical of controversial and legally questionable decisions made by the ICLT Board of Directors (Board) such as their decision on June 26, 2017 to amend their bylaws to exclude public participation, reduce transparency, and declare themselves exempt from the Brown Act. (Resolution 17-035 and 18-039)
Setting all of that aside for now – Let’s take a fresh look at the Irvine Community Land Trust and answer some basic questions.
Putting it in Context
Some of Irvine’s less well-known achievements are the city’s decade’s long leadership and innovative approach to affordable housing. For example, Irvine has more affordable housing than any other city in Orange County with 4,569 units and 1,000 more underway. These units serve the growing number of low-income residents, veterans, seniors, disabled, and more.
Many of these units were funded with resources from Irvine’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. Adopted in 2003, it requires new market-rate development with more than 50 units to “set-aside” 15% of the units for affordable housing or pay “in-lieu of” fees of $12,471 per unit. These “In-Lieu of Fees” are then held in Irvine’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and used for affordable housing development. This bold, if imperfect, ordinance has helped fund thousands of local affordable units.
The City’s affordable housing strategy is targeted to assist residents in the following income levels:
What is the Irvine Community Land Trust?
The Irvine Community Land Trust (ICLT) was created by the City of Irvine as a City-controlled non-profit 501(c)3 affordable housing development company in 2006. Their Mission Statement reads:
“The Irvine Community Land Trust provides secure, high-quality affordable housing as a non-profit organization that acquires and retains land with the purpose of developing permanently affordable rental, ownership and special needs housing for the benefit of income-eligible families.”
The organization reported net assets of $66,643,725 to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2018. The City of Irvine has committed to pay the ICLT $29.2 million with payments yearly toward that amount paid annually. This payment is the result of a settlement agreement resulting from the dissolution of Redevelopment Agency. The City is legally bound by the terms of the settlement agreement.
The City’s cash donations, land donations, settlement agreement payments, and the “in-Lieu of” fees are not enough on their own to “buy-down” the cost of construction to build affordable housing. The ICLT applies for Federal, State, and County funds to make a project financially feasible. This process, in addition to burdensome state regulations, make the affordable housing projects lengthy and complex. It is not uncommon for a project to take four-years or more before it is approved, developed, and made available to the public.
A review of the ICLT top-line financials such as operating expenses. revenue, and investments appear to show the organization to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money and a lean organization with only one paid fulltime staff member.
The ICLT is in good hands with Executive Director Mark Asturias, a career housing professional and an accomplished affordable housing development leader. Mark used to work for the City, and was instrumental in the creation of the ICLT at a time when it was outside the mainstream, innovative, and even considered radical by some. Community land trusts (CLT’s) started in the South by civil rights activists beginning with New Communities Inc. Today, there are more than 240 CLTs in the United States and the largest CLT, Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, owns over 2,000 homes.
What Makes the Irvine Community Land Trust Different?
What makes the ICLT different from the other affordable housing non-profits and funding methods? Permanent affordability. A major cost of development is the cost of land. A Land Trust acquires land and places restrictions, such as a 99-year land-lease, and then facilitates the development of affordable housing. This lowers the cost of development making the completed units more affordable for low income renters and owners.
Permanent affordability is a very important contribution to the city’s affordability housing inventory. When affordable units with shorter (e.g. 30 years) affordability restrictions expire, they convert to “at-market” units and we lose affordable units.
A 2019 case study of the Irvine Community Land Trust conducted by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation of UC Berkeley, found that Irvine’s inclusionary housing program, which only require units to remain affordable for 30 years, resulted in the loss of one-third of the original 3,155 affordable housing units created through the program because the “at-risk” units converted to market-rate, a significant loss of the affordable housing portfolio for the community.
The Affordable Housing Crisis Demands Change
Since its creation in 2006, the ICLT has developed 389 units and purchased 9 affordable condos for a total of 398 units. With the Native Springs project now under development they will add another 68 units to their inventory for a total of 466 affordable units.
When the ICLT Salerno development opened up for resident applicants, the 80 unit project received 6,818 applicants. The demand was over 85 applicants for every available unit. Demand is outstripping supply. That is far short of the overall need for affordable housing and the ICLT’s capacity should be reviewed carefully by the City in the next updated Housing Element of the General Plan.
It will be a challenge for the City to meet the aggressive new requirements of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) goals soon to be announced by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). Increasing the capacity to produce affordable units and shortening the development cycle will be necessary for the City and all of its development partners.
Taxpayer Funds, Mean Public Oversight
The Irvine Community Land Trust is 100% taxpayer funded. While they can accept private donations, in their 14-years of existence, they have not received any private or individual donations. This makes the ICLT, in effect, a quasi-public organization. As they spend our money, they should be transparent, open to the public, and responsive to public requests for information. Furthermore, while in practice they allow public participation, their bylaws still contain or excluded specific language that is not in line with current practice. That should change. The bylaws should be amended to reflect best practice.
You want taxpayer money? It comes with public oversight.
The Irvine Community Land Trust is a valuable asset in the city’s affordable housing strategy. The projects they have completed are great examples of how quality, well designed, affordable housing projects can be integrated successfully into neighborhoods, while respecting the unique character of Irvine.
If you want to get involved and attend and participate in the ICLT meetings, here is how you can:
Meetings are held on the 4th Monday of every month at 4:00 on Zoom.
Agendas are normally posted Friday afternoon before the Monday meeting.