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News Redistricting

Could Two of OC’s Smaller Cities Buck California’s Trend Toward District Elections?

Two small Orange County cities could be the first in California to successfully fight back against a statewide trend of cities switching to district elections.

City council members in Brea and Cypress said they will not be switching to district elections after receiving a legal threat to make the change.

They could also be the latest in a string of Golden State cities to face costly legal battles and ultimately be forced by a judge to adopt district voting.

In by-district elections, residents can only vote for a candidate who lives in their district – only having a say on who gets to sit on one of the seats at the dais.

In at-large elections, voters across the city can vote for as many candidates as there are council seats up for grabs. For example, if three seats are up for election, voters can vote for three candidates – the top three vote-getters are then elected to those seats.

The switch is part of a larger trend – often pushed by voting rights organizations – to fix what they say is racially polarized voting, which means at-large voting disenfranchises minority voters and candidates.

In cases where California courts have ruled on election lawsuits, judges routinely ruled at-large voting systems violate the state’s voting rights act.

Yet Brea council members recently decided publicly that their city wouldn’t make a switch to district voting. 

“Our constituents all feel very strongly for the most part that districting is not right for a city as small as Brea. Maybe it works for a larger city – but for us, everyone loses. Everyone in the city loses four votes,” said Brea Mayor Cecilia Hupp in a Thursday phone interview.

Brea’s also facing a lawsuit from two former city council candidates in an effort to stop the city from making the switch.

Both Brea and Cypress could potentially end up spending considerable amounts on legal battles – a dynamic that’s already played out in cities across California and Orange County, like in Anaheim, Fullerton and Mission Viejo. 

Some cities, like Palmdale, rejected the switch and were ultimately forced to adopt district elections by a judge, and ended up paying the plaintiffs’ lawyers $4.5 million plus interest. 

One of those lawyers in the Palmdale case is Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman, who is also the attorney who sent Brea and Cypress officials a warning letter about their election systems.

Shenkman, who’s been sending similar letters to officials throughout OC and the state, has developed a reputation for forcing cities to switch to district elections by representing people and groups who threaten to sue municipalities under California’s Voting Rights Act.

In a Wednesday interview, Shenkman said the Palmdale case changed city officials’ reactions to his letters.

“The reaction of most cities to a demand would be F you…After our victory in Palmdale, I think most cities at least got a hint that this is not the right way to go.”

Kevin Shenkman, attorney

Shenkman said that officials in Brea and Cypress can expect a lawsuit for violating the California Voting Rights Act.

Shenkman represents Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which alleges at-large voting in the two small cities is diluting minority voters’ voices.

He also said Brea officials abruptly backed out of an agreement.

“We had entered into an agreement some time ago in good faith based on representations made by the city and its council. Now, it seems that the council has reneged on those representations,” he said.

Cypress City Attorney Fred Galante sent a response letter to Shenkman last month arguing that legal action against the city is unwarranted.

“We would therefore respectfully request that you provide us any evidence you purport to have in support of your allegations so that we can understand the nature of your client’s demand. Your refusal to do so leaves the City without evidence of a [California Voting Rights Act] violation and no rationale for disenfranchising its residents by abandoning at-large elections,” the letter continues.

In Orange County, Garden GroveSan Juan CapistranoFullertonOrange and Santa Ana switched from at-large elections to district elections stemming from litigation threats or lawsuits.

Anaheim ended up making a switch to district voting after settling a lawsuit in 2014 from the American Civil Liberties Union that alleged at-large voting was disenfranchising Latino voters

The legal battle cost Anaheim taxpayers more than $1 million. 

Brea council members  stopped their switch to district elections less than two weeks before the deadline to submit their new voting map to Orange County Registrar of Voters following pressure from residents and a lawsuit by former city council candidates against the city to stop the switch.

The lawsuit against the city was filed by two former city council candidates, Richard Rios and Michael Kim, who argued the switch to district elections would cause the exact problems that the state’s voting rights act was created to avoid.

Steve Baric, an attorney representing Kim and Rios, said other cities are taking a stand against Shenkman. 

“You’re starting to see cities like Brea, Cypress and the city of Irvine that are pushing back,” Baric said in a Wednesday phone interview. “They’re standing up for their citizens.”

Last year, Irvine also resisted Shenkman’s calls to change their election system. 

Baric said Rios and Kim are reassessing their own legal challenge following the council’s decision.

Hupp, Brea’s mayor, refused to comment on the Kim and Rios lawsuit.

[Read: Will Brea’s Century-Old Election System Be Nixed? Residents Fight Switch to District Voting]

Photo of Brea city civic and cultural center, on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Credit: DEVON JAMES, VOICE OF OC

Hupp and her fellow Brea council members themselves have routinely said that they don’t want to make the change to by-district elections but felt forced to after receiving a legal threat three years ago. 

“I feel like we’re being blackmailed, strong armed, scammed, however you want to put it…We’ve got several other cities that have decided to stand up and fight and maybe we need to consider standing up and fighting.”

Brea Mayor Cecilia Hupp said at an April 5 council meeting

In a phone interview Thursday, Hupp said one of the reasons they decided against switching to district elections is because they’re waiting on the California Supreme Court to make a decision on a similar battle in Santa Monica.

But Shenkman said cities who choose to fight a switch to district elections are making a “dumb mistake.”

“Some of these cities may be looking at that case and then hoping, wishing against all indications, that somehow that case is going to allow them to continue diluting the votes of their minority residents, so that they can stay in power,” Shenkman said.

[Read: Brea Officials Consider District Elections While Facing Two Competing Legal Threats Over Voting]

In 2019, city officials received a letter from Shenkman, representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which alleged that voting in Brea is racially polarized and the city’s current election system violates the state’s voting rights act by disenfranchising Asian and Latino voters.

Census results from 2020 show the city has a citizen voting age population of nearly 30,000 people – 51% are white, 27% are Latino and 19% are Asian/Pacific Islander residents, according to the city’s demographic summary.

In the letter, Shenkman used both Rios’ and Kim’s failed campaigns as examples of disenfranchisement by the at-large election system in Brea. 

He gave officials a choice: switch to district elections voluntarily or face a lawsuit.

Following the 2019 letter, Brea officials had initially been taking steps to cut up the city into districts after making the agreement with Shenkman to curb a lawsuit.

But at their April 5 meeting Brea city council members narrowly voted 3-2 to abandon the switch.

Councilmembers Christine Marick and Glenn Parker were the dissenting votes and both expressed concern about the legal exposure and the cost of a lawsuit.

“The results are not only financial, which could be extreme which would lead to service cuts or changes. We do not have an unlimited budget to fight the (State Voting Rights Act),” Marick said at the meeting. “There is the potential that in that potential lawsuit the districts are drawn for us and they’re not done through a deliberative process that we have had over the last year.”

She also noted the agreement they made.

Councilman Steven Vargas, who made the motion to not move forward with district elections, pointed to other cities standing up against Shenkman.

“With new information about Cypress, essentially, not responding to the Shenkman letter, and the city of Norco in 2017 got the Shenkman letter and didn’t respond to it and still hasn’t had any issues. I think that we should not do this,” he said.

Cypress Ignores Warning Letter

Last month, Cypress City Council Members voted behind closed doors 4-1 to reject a similar letter they received from Shenkman demanding the city switch to district elections.

The closed session meeting and vote sparked questions of whether the vote was illegal and violated California’s Brown Act – the state law that governs transparency for local government bodies, like city councils. 

Galante, the city attorney, disputed any potential Brown Act violations in a phone interview Thursday.

“The Brown Act specifically allows public agencies to meet in closed session to discuss a threat of litigation,” he said. “All they did was review a threat of litigation and basically decided to not go along with it and rejected it. That happens all the time.”

Galante also said he reported the decision out of closed session.

David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the city has the right under the Brown Act to take legal advice from their attorney over threats of litigation.

In a Thursday phone interview, Loy argued that there was also a policy issue at play in Cypress – should the city switch to district elections or not?

“Is it a good idea or a bad idea, litigation aside, to move from at large to district elections? That certainly is embedded in the decision by the council and is implicitly part of the decision they made and I think that should have been discussed and voted on in open session,” Loy said.

Regardless of Brown Act concerns, Shenkman said Cypress City Council members should’ve publicly debated the issue.

“This is certainly a matter of public concern and if the council members were so confident in their positions, there’s no reason for them to hide those positions,” he said.

Cypress Civic Center on April 17, 2022. Credit: AYDA TUNCAY, Voice of OC

Cypress council members were hit with a letter in September of last year from Shenkman, representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, alleging the city was violating the state’s voting rights act by disenfranchising Asian American voters in the city.

In Cypress, Asian Americans comprise 37% of the city’s over 50,000 population, according to the Census Bureau. Citizen voting age population data was not available.

“The current complete absence of Asian representation on the City’s governing board is revealing,” the letter reads. “It appears that in the past 20 years, the city’s elections have been almost completely devoid of Asian candidates.”

Galante disputed the city is violating California voting law in his letter to Shenkman and argues that there has been a history of Asian Americans elected to the council.

“In1998 and again (in) 2002, Lydia Sondhi was elected to the City Council. Also, in 2006 and again 2010, Dr. Prakash Narain was elected to the City Council,” reads the letter. “Certainly, these undeniable trends of Asian Americans succeeding in the City’s at-large elections confirm that Cypress is not the appropriate target for your cookie cutter [voting rights act] letters.”

In November 2020, Carrie Katsumata Hayashida, an Asian American city council candidate, came close to being elected, but lost to Council Members Anne Hertz and Frances Marquez.

When Stacy Berry resigned from the Cypress Council, some residents voiced support for Hayashida to be appointed but the council instead appointed Scott Minikus.

Shenkman sent his letter about a month after Minikus was selected, using Hayashida’s failed campaign as an example in his letter of vote dilution.

In the city’s response letter to Shenkman, Galante argued that residents were concerned with losing their ability to vote for all five seats and that no areas in the city have a high concentration of any protected class under the state’s voting rights act.

“​​It would be impossible to show that districts would enhance the ability of any protected class to elect candidates of its choice or influence election outcomes. To the contrary, splitting up the votes of those protected classes would have the effect of preventing them from voting as a larger class to elect a candidate of their choice,” Galante wrote.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Categories
News Redistricting

Court says OC Board of Ed will use voting maps by county committee

Orange County Board of Education members seeking re-election in June will be forced to campaign in newly redrawn districts, selected by a county committee, following a court order this week.

On Wednesday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory H. Lewis denied the board’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped new election maps created with input from the board from immediately going into effect.

That means OCBE members Mari Barke, Lisa Sparks and Tim Shaw will be facing challengers in the June 7 election in redrawn districts.

Board members argue the new districts have been drawn in a way to push them out of office, but members of the committee that created the maps said the new lines were created independent of politics.

“My district was definitely gerrymandered very far south, which didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me,” said Barke, a Rossmoor resident in north Orange County.

Shaw, a La Habra resident, had similar complaints and claimed the redrawn districts were “politically motivated.”

“They put La Habra, Fullerton and Buena Park in the Fourth District, then put Brea, Placentia and Yorba Linda in the third district, drawing a wedge straight through North Orange County.”

The five-member Orange County Board of Education includes four very conservative board members who have used their platform to push their ideals, including less intrusive public health rules during the pandemic and support of public charter schools.

Virginia Wilson, a longtime member of the Los Alamitos Unified School Board and a member of the Orange County Committee on School District Organization, which is tasked with school redistricting maps, said politics was never discussed or considered during the map drawing process.

“We chose the map that tried to keep districts whole, together,” Wilson said.  “We made a determination under (education) code and it was within the law.”

Wilson, who like other committee members was a target of derogatory remarks from some OCBE supporters during recent public hearings, added: “I was very shocked by the attitude and the language of the people speaking.”

The map making process has sparked a legal battle.

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On Jan. 20, the OCBE filed a court petition against the Orange County Committee on School District Organization. On Jan. 28, that committee, made up of 11 current and former school board members, rejected OCBE’s favored election map, and voted 8-2 in favor of another redistricting map.  A few days later, the Orange County Board of Supervisors stepped into the dispute and passed a resolution giving the OCBE “exclusive authority” to adjust its own voter redistricting.

In his order this week, Judge Lewis denied OCBE’s request, the second time a Superior Court judge this year ruled against a temporary restraining order in the case.

Lewis wrote that county trustees “contended that the OC Board of Supervisors has authority to determine the redistricting powers of the Board of Education” and that county supervisors could then delegate that authority to the Board of Education members, according to a court document. But “the state’s education code designates the committee as the group charged with revising election maps following the decennial U.S. Census count.”

Committee member Francine Scinto, one of two members who voted for what she called “a far superior” version of the OCBE’s map, said she “did not look at it from a political standpoint” but questioned whether politics came into play with some on the committee.

“We didn’t talk about it that way,” said Scinto, who served on the Tustin Unified School Board for 24 years. “But that doesn’t mean some people don’t have connections behind the scenes. I was surprised at how lopsided the vote was.”

Scinto also did not think that having dueling demographers and attorneys — hired by the Board of Education and the committee — made for good governance.

“The whole situation is very unfortunate.”

And it’s not over. While Lewis denied the OCBE’s request for a temporary restraining order, the case will continue and could impact future elections, Barke and Shaw said Friday.

“We’re definitely going to pursue this. It’s not over,” Barke said.

Beckie Gomez, a member of OCBE who tends to vote against the conservative majority and who opposed taking the county committee to court, noted that this is one of several lawsuits or legal matters involving the board. Those legal fights, she said, have been distracting.

“It’s been difficult,” Gomez said. “So many different lawsuits going on. The board’s focus should be on education.”

Meanwhile, board members up for re-election said they’re beginning their campaigns.

“Personally, I’m going to put a lot more miles on my tennis shoes,” Barke said.

Sparks, who said she may not be affected as much by the redistricting as her colleagues, has fundraisers lined up and said she plans to “hit the ground running.”

The deadline for candidates to file their candidacy paperwork with the Orange County Registrar of Voters for the June 7 election is Friday, March 11.

Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.

Categories
News Redistricting

Anaheim New Election Map Giving Latinos More Representation

Anaheim City Council members this week have settled on a newly carved out election map that will determine voter representation in Orange County’s largest city for roughly the next decade and it boosts the Latino community’s voting power.

In half of the city’s six voting districts, Latinos eligible to vote would make up 50% or more of the population in a city where Latinos make up more than half of the city’s total population.

Like many cities in Orange County, this marks the first redistricting process for Anaheim. 

Over the past five years or so, many OC cities have switched from at-large elections to district elections after being threatened with lawsuits alleging that their citywide, at-large voting methods were disenfranchising communities of color.

[Read: What Will Orange County Cities’ Representation Look Like After This Year?]

In at-large elections, voters across the city can vote for as many candidates as there are council seats up for grabs. For example, if three seats are up for election, voters can vote for three candidates – the top three vote-getters are then elected to those seats. 

In district elections, voters can only vote for one candidate who lives in their respective districts.

At their meeting on Tuesday, Anaheim council members selected a new election map dubbed 114 for their city and voted 5-1 to introduce an ordinance adopting the map.

“(Map) 114 for the most part reflects our city’s demographics and communities while having clear geographical boundaries and maintaining similarities to the current district map boundaries,” Councilman Avelino Valencia said at the meeting.

Councilman Jose Moreno was absent from the meeting and Councilman Stephen Faesselwas the dissenting vote, who insisted the Platinum Triangle, a development area near Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, stay together.

Map 114 would split up the Platinum Triangle area.

“I won’t support any map whatsoever that breaks up the Platinum Triangle,” Faessel said at the meeting. “I will not budge on the Platinum Triangle.”

The new map has been drawn using 2020 census data.

Census results from 2020 show the city has a citizen voting age population of 199,301 people – 39% are Latino, 36% are white, 21% are Asian/Pacific Islander residents and 4% are Black, according to the city’s demographic census summary.

According to the same data, 54% of the city’s total population are Latino.

The newly selected map will create three major Latino voting districts in the west side of the city with around 50% of Latino voting-age residents making up districts 3, 4 and 5. 

“Definitely 114 is my favorite because it keeps the majority Latino vote, but also it keeps most of the community’s interests together and that’s ultimately what we are trying to achieve here,” said Councilman Jose Diaz at the meeting.

Under the current map, only two of the the six districts in Anaheim have a majority Latino citizen voting age population.

The selection of the map came after several Anaheim residents, mainly volunteers from the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Developmentvoiced support for Map 114.

“Map 114 offers stability and balance to all three needed districts. Not only will it allow residents of each district to come together, learn and contribute to diverse communities but it will offer more opportunities for future generations to unfold,” said Dayana Badillo Marin, a resident who spoke at the meeting.

Anaheim & Other OC Cities Forced to Switch to District Elections

Back in 2016, the city adopted its first district boundary map based on census data from 2010.

Up until recent years, Anaheim used to hold at-large elections where residents could vote for as many council candidates as there were vacant seats on the dais.

Anaheim ended up making a switch to district voting after settling a lawsuit in 2014 from the ACLU that alleged at-large voting was disenfranchising Latino voters and violating the State’s Voting Rights Act. The settlement called for the city to put the district election question in front of voters.

City officials spent over $1 million tax dollars fighting the lawsuit that eventually saw an overwhelming majority of city voters choose to switch to district elections in 2014.

Officials there weren’t the only ones forced to switch their election system in lawsuits.

Cities and school districts up and down California have also transitioned to district voting following lawsuits or being threatened with litigation.

Locally, the cities of Garden GroveSan Juan CapistranoFullertonOrange and Santa Ana have made the switch from at-large elections to district elections.

The list continues to grow.

Brea officials are in the midst of a transition amid two competing legal threats over the future of elections over there.

[Read: Brea Officials Consider District Elections While Facing Two Competing Legal Threats Over Voting]

Anaheim council members are expected to finalize adoption of their new map at their March 15 meeting.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Categories
News

OC bus strike deadline passes with OCTA and union still bargaining

HED: February 15, 2022 at 6:51 a.m. | UPDATED: February 15, 2022 at 10:59 a.m.

The midnight deadline for a possible strike by bus drivers in Orange County passed with negotiators still at the table, union officials told their members in an early Tuesday morning update.

Teamsters Local 952, which represents about 600 OCTA bus drivers, told its members talks were still ongoing and to check back for updates, averting at least for now a strike that would strand thousands of riders who rely on the Orange County Transportation Authority’s bus services to get to work, school and around the region.

Union and OCTA officials have been trying to agree on a new contract for the agency’s bus drivers for more than a year, stalling on issues of wages and break time. The union had threatened to strike as soon as 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15.

The bus drivers represented in the bargaining unit cover 23 bus routes throughout Orange County that would be impacted. Those routes represent about 75% of ridership, the agency contracts for its other routes.

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News

People in OC Jails Say They’re Still Fed Moldy Food

Three cold rotten moldy bologna sandwiches a day – that’s what local advocates and a report say people locked up in Orange County jails have been eating for the past two years during the pandemic.

Inmates and those same advocates are pushing for better food in jails and have been calling on the Orange County Board of Supervisors to stop increasing funding for the county’s sheriff department until they fully reinstate hot meals.

They also want supervisors to have open, public conversations about the food conditions in jails – which they haven’t done.

Sarah Kahn, who is a part of the Stop the Musick Coalition behind the report, said in a phone interview Wednesday the immediate goal is to get hot meals back for inmates.

“In a larger sense, I think there’s a big food justice movement happening in carceral settings and the goal is really to improve it far beyond what the jail was serving even before COVID, which was already horrible quality food,” she said.

Kahn also said inconsistently over the past several months the department has reintroduced what they’re calling “hot meals” which she said was actually just warm broth or warm cereal without any real nutritional value.

“I am in contact with several people who are currently incarcerated and so far have not heard any reports that they have actually reinstated hot meals,” she said.

One OC Supervisor publicly disputed the claims that incarcerated people were only being fed bologna sandwiches last week, although the county’s board of supervisors have not scheduled a discussion on the matter since the release of the report.

“There’s not bologna sandwiches being provided for every single meal. There is oatmeal, cream of wheat or cereal in the morning, hard boiled eggs, always a fruit option,” Supervisor Katrina Foley said at last Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I felt that we were in compliance with the state title 15 requirements as it relates to the ingredients as well as for sodium,” she said.

Foley said she recently visited the Theo Lacy jail in Santa Ana to check out the food situation.

Kahn said while people in jail do get cereal or a hard boiled egg, it’s not healthy enough and expressed disappointment over Foley’s comments. 

“People describe it as torture eating these horrible bologna sandwiches day after day after day and having a cold hard boiled egg in the morning alongside more bologna in slices of bread is really not a significant difference,” she said.

Kahn told Voice of OC that the county’s sheriff’s department has a pattern of changing their habits before inspections.

Foley also said Tuesday there were a variety of lunch meats being provided including a vegan option, but acknowledged that sandwich meals weren’t ideal.

“As we move out of the COVID crisis, we will start to be able to return to having more what you might consider to be homemade meals,” she said.

Spokespeople for the OC Sheriff’s department have yet to answer Voice of OC questions on the matter, but provided a statement they issued in December when the report was released. 

The statement said the department is in compliance with state guidelines.

“We dispute their allegations that OCSD is serving spoiled or nutritionally deficient food to incarcerated persons,” reads the statement.

Sheriff’s officials haven’t yet provided Voice of OC a jail food menu detailing what was served for the past month.

Residents Call on OC Board of Supervisors to Act

The County’s Board of Supervisors have not agendized a discussion on jail meals since the report was released in December.

Kahn said dozens of residents spoke during public comment periods since the report was made public and over 80 letters have been sent to the board on the issue.

“It’s extremely important to have public dialogue that is transparent and that every person in the community can participate in,” she said.

At last Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, two residents sent in comments condemning the supervisors and the Sheriff departments for the food conditions at the jails.

“The behavior of the [OC Sheriff’s Department] is unconscionable and inexcusable and I’m ashamed to live in a county whose supposed leaders have such an abysmal regard for human life,” read a comment from Irvine Resident Felicity Figuera.

“We should be listening to the people who are suffering from this situation every day,” she said.

Foley’s update comes on the heels of a resolution from the County’s Democratic Party calling on the Sheriff’s Department to stop serving rotten food.

Report Highlights Food Conditions in OC Jails

The report was created by the Stop the Musick Coalition and details just how bad the food conditions in OC jails are with written testimonies from people on the inside.

The coalition is dedicated to reducing jail populations in the county and are fighting the expansion and reopening of the James A. Musick facility – a jail in Irvine.

“Sometimes the bread comes moldy or soggy; we are pretty much starving,” an inmate identified as K. said in the report.

“The milk sometimes comes sour, it expired, and yet they pass it out like that. Honestly, it seems that they don’t care because at the end of the day they go home and eat fresh cooked meals […] we stay here.”

The report states that people in OC jails are being given sandwiches with moldy bread and discolored, rotting meat.

“The bologna sometimes leaks a dark juice and is blotched with green spots. Several people have described becoming so sick that they needed medical attention. People have to skip meals when the food is too rotten, often skipping several meals in a row,” reads the report.

The report also pushed the Los Angeles Times editorial board to condemn the allegedly rotten food.

Advocates found that inmates are being “given food containing over twice as much sodium as is recommended by the FDA,” which can lead to heart issues.

The coalition is also calling on the County’s Board of Supervisors to direct the OC Health Care Agency to conduct unannounced checks of jail kitchens and require the Sheriff’s Department to publicly post jail menus.

Pandemic Shuts Down Hot Meal Services in Jail

In March 2020, hot meals were suspended due to a lack of inmate work crews and to avoid congregations in dining halls as a precaution to limit the spread of the virus. 

It wasn’t long after that people in OC jails themselves took a stand against the food conditions.

In the summer of 2020, at least 300 inmates at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange and 120 at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana declared they were on a hunger strike calling for hot meals to be served once again and for family visitations to resume at the jails.

Some people raised concerns about the quality of food they were being served back then too.

[Read:Hunger Strike in OC Jails Over Lack of Visitations and Hot Meals Comes to An End]

The coalition’s reports state that in 2020 the Sheriff’s Department spent $1 million less on food than was allocated on their budget and used the savings for other expenses like staffing.

It also states that while the jail population decreased because of COVID, commissary revenue has remained consistently high.

Even before the pandemic, there have been questions about the quality of food the Sheriff’s department was serving to incarcerated people.

A report by the Office of the Inspector General after an unannounced inspection of the Theo Lacy Facility published in March 2017 expressed concern over the sheriff’s department’s handling of food. 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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News

New OC Elections Official Ahead of June Primary

Orange County is about to see a big change to the leadership of its elections system, with the retirement and replacement of outgoing Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley – who by his own estimate oversaw roughly 90 elections and 20 recounts in his 18-year tenure.

County leaders picked current San Bernardino Registrar of Voters Bob Page to succeed Kelley.

Page has far less experience than Kelley.

By his own account, Page has administered about three statewide elections, one recall election, and a “handful” of local elections in the neighboring county

Before Page got his current job in 2018, he was a “principal management analyst” for the county. 

And before that, he was a top county political aide, serving as chief of staff for two San Bernardino county supervisors at different points in the 2000s, most recently for Democrat Josie Gonzales, former chair of the board and before that for the late Jon Mikels, a Republican.

During his time as a political aide, unsuccessful attempts were made to bribe Page while he worked for Gonzales, according to the San Bernardino Sun.

In a Thursday phone interview, Page said he approaches government affairs with integrity. 

“A business that was looking to develop in the community of Bloomington attempted to bribe me and I immediately reported that to the district attorney’s office. They completed an investigation and a prosecution and ultimately those brothers pled guilty one to attempted bribery and the other to bribery,” he said.

Page makes $195,000 as San Bernardino’s Registrar of Voters annually and will see a $40,000 pay raise when he comes to Orange County for a starting salary of $235,000.

In Orange County, he’s walking into a dense metropolitan center of 3.2 million people, 34 cities, and a mix of communities differing by race, class, and political beliefs.

Page is also taking over during a time when questions about the integrity of elections have become part of the discourse in recent election cycles across the nation.

Though Page isn’t exactly new to the area – he said he grew up in Orange County. 

Kelley, who is set to leave his post on March 10, is widely regarded across the state and U.S. as a leader in elections administration and helped steer California’s pivot to vote centers in the later end of his 18 years leading the county’s election system.

[Read: OC’s Longtime Elections Chief Neal Kelley is Retiring]

Page has acknowledged this experience gap – and the work cut out for him.

“Neal Kelley has done an amazing job as a Registrar of Voters,” Page said. “But he also started at a point where he had not conducted an election. He, over the years, developed that experience, built an amazing team that will be there to work with me,” Page said.

“I’m not going to say that I have the same amount of experience as Neal, I don’t. But that’s not to say that I can’t do the job,” Page added.

That echoes the sentiment coming from the county’s chief executive, CEO Frank Kim who notes there’s a strong team of staff at the OC Registrar’s office as well as the fact that when Kelley took over at the Registrar’s Office, he came in with private sector background that wasn’t’ in elections.

Regarding Page’s hire, Kim replied,  

“We are happy that we were able to recruit a Registrar from a Southern California urban county. Bob will be a dynamic leader for us and (we) have to have him in Orange County.” 

Kelley, when asked about the difference in experience between himself and his successor, said he’ll work to set Page up for success.

“One of the things that I really value with the county here is that they’re giving us an opportunity for me to have some overlap with him so I think it’ll be a smooth transition,” Kelley said in a Thursday interview.

Page will start work on Feb. 25 and Kelley will stick around until about the middle of March to help him with the transition.

Kelley said his wife’s coinciding retirement from the U.S. Navy – and the recent death of a family member – has warranted a step back.

“I recently lost a sister and I’m kind of just reflecting on life. It’s going to give me a chance to stop and smell the roses for a little bit,” he said.

Kelley has not only overseen about 90 elections and 20 recounts during his tenure, but also led the county’s switch from traditional polling sites to vote centers in 2020. 

It was a year of election firsts, seeing an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots and a push to contest the integrity of the election process when current U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, beat out Republican incumbent Donald Trump. 

[Read: How Voting in OC Will Change in 2020]

On Thursday, Page said there have been a number of questions on election integrity and security in recent years.

“That’s something that we deal with upfront and directly. When people have questions, we answer them. We let them view the process, and show them all the different things that we do to ensure that elections are accurate, and fair,” he said.

Page said in a previous Tuesday interview, “transparency will be key.” 

“All of our election processes are observable for people to come and watch, and continuing that is important so people understand how elections work,” Page said, speaking from his experience in San Bernardino County,

It will take “constant” public messaging “on all the provisions we put in place to ensure elections are accurate and fair,” Page said. “In our county (San Bernardino) when we got those questions, it was a matter of sitting down, saying, ‘You may have heard this about this system, here’s what we do before every election’ …”

“Yes, there will be differences to learn from and see how Orange County’s operation works, but the goal is still the same: To ensure voters have access to a regular ballot and won’t have to vote provisionally.”

Page will oversee county elections beginning with the June primary.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Categories
News Redistricting

Term extensions in Mission Viejo challenged

Mission Viejo City Hall in Mission Viejo on Wednesday, January 5, 2022. After facing pressure in 2018 to change its voting structure for council elections, Mission Viejo leaders shifted to cumulative voting as the best choice for addressing minority representation in city council elections. The method ran into obstacles with the state and the city abandoned efforts to implement it this year, instead opting for district-based voting which still doesn’t address the issues surrounding the dilution of the Latino vote in Mission Viejo. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)By TESS SHEETS | tsheets@scng.com |PUBLISHED: February 11, 2022 at 9:16 a.m. | UPDATED: February 11, 2022 at 9:16 a.m.

When Mission Viejo leaders in 2020 decided to delay plans for changing how voting is done in the city — after nearly two years of trying to implement a cumulative system — threecouncil members ended up staying in office two years longer than the terms they were elected to.

Now, a resident is asking the state attorney general to allow his lawsuit over the extension of those two-year terms to four years without a public vote. And some residents say they are concerned it could happen again, as Mission Viejo leaders finalize plans for transitioning to a by-district voting system.

But the attorney for Mission Viejo, who is also representing the three council members being challenged, said the city is not making up new rules. Since officials couldn’t make cumulative voting work – state officials said it would need legislative changes – the city’s existing laws governing council member terms were followed, City Attorney Bill Curley said.

To settle a 2018 lawsuit against the city over its at-large election system, Mission Viejo leaders and the voting rights group that sued the city agreed cumulative voting was the best method for addressing minority voter dilution in the city. Under a cumulative system, voters receive as many votes as open seats and cast them however they like – including multiple for the same person. For the cumulative system, all City Council members would be up for election at the same time.

In order to align the terms of the council members, city officials in 2018 intended for the three winners for office that year to serve only two-year terms, so all five city leader positions would be on the ballot in 2020, when the new voting system was expected to launch.

When those plans were delayed due to pushback from state officials, the terms of the three council members – Wendy Bucknam, Greg Raths and Ed Sachs – were extended by a City Council vote.

Curley said officials went back to an Orange County Superior Court judge and asked for more time to get the cumulative-voting system implemented.

Because all five seats needed to be up for election in 2022, when city leaders expected to finally get the new system in place, the two winners from the ballot for 2020 were to serve for two years. Elected that year were Trish Kelley and Brian Goodell.

Now that Mission Viejo leaders have dropped the idea of cumulative voting in favor of a district-based system, some community members are questioning the term extensions for Raths, Sachs and Bucknum, which they argue were decided without public input.

And because terms would instead be staggered in a district-based system, some suspect Kelley and Goodell won’t end up facing a public vote in November.

Curley said that has yet to be decided.

Cathy Palmer, who has lived in Mission Viejo since the 1980s, said the council’s decision to extend officials’ terms in office beyond what residents believed they were voting for is “concerning.”

Palmer said she considers it breaking a “philosophical principle” by “taking away, as a citizen, my fundamental right to choose those who represent me.”

Another resident, Michael Schlesinger, filed an application with the state attorney general last month asking for a legal opinion on whether Raths, Sachs and Bucknum can be sued for remaining in office.

Lee Fink, the attorney representing Schlesinger, said if given the go-ahead by the state’s top prosecutor, they would file in Orange County Superior Court “and ask that the three council members be removed and the offices declared vacant.”

“We are hoping that we can get this matter resolved by the courts to prevent the City Council from further breaching their obligations to the public and allowing themselves to just serve beyond their term,” Fink said.

The filing notes that, under an amended lawsuit settlement agreement issued in 2020, Judge Walter Shwarm ordered all five council seats be up for election in 2022.

But Curley said the two-year terms on which the council members were elected was based on the plan that the city would implement cumulative voting, “and when that was ultimately not viable, particularly because of the concerns of the secretary of state, then we went to normal, if you will, to consistent with existing city and state law,” which puts council member terms at four years, he said.

“And so at no time were we making things up.”

He said that while it has been mentioned during public meetings that the switch to district-based voting will mean three candidates on the ballot in 2022 and two in 2024, officials are simply relaying what the standard process is, but that could be changed.

“We’re telling you what’s on the books, but the books can change in a month,” he said.

When the City Council adopts an ordinance formally implementing the district elections process and official map carving the city into geographic voting areas, “absent being unconstitutional, they can pretty much do what seems right for the community then,” Curley said.

That could mean rolling over the terms of Kelley and Goodell to 2024, he said. The council could, like some other cities that made the switch to district-based voting, also choose to elect the two seats to two-year terms in November to stagger voting for the future.

Categories
News

Rent soars, tenants struggle to find apartments as vacancy hits 22-year low

After three months of searching in vain for a place to rent, Penny Friesz jumped at the chance to lease a small, dilapidated duplex in Huntington Beach that needs a refrigerator, washer and dryer, yard work and new paint for the fence.

She will pay $3,000 a month, or $500 more than her original budgeted amount.

“It’s a mess. It’s seriously a mess,” Friesz said of her future home after recently signing the lease and putting down a $3,700 deposit. “I probably wouldn’t have even rented it if there were another option.”

Friesz is perhaps one of the more desperate renters in today’s market. But she’s hardly alone.

With apartment vacancies at a 22-year low, Southern Californians shopping for a rental over the past few months faced limited options and rapidly escalating rents as the apartment market rebounds from the pandemic.

A Southern California News Group composite from three rental indexes shows the asking rent for a vacant unit in L.A. County jumped an average 10% from a year ago during the fourth quarter of 2021, snapping a 12-month lull that pushed L.A. rents down during the pandemic.

The same composite showed Orange County asking rents rose an average 18% during the fourth quarter, and Inland Empire rents were up 17%.

SCNG averaged fourth-quarter data compiled by apartment trackers RealPage, Moody’s Analytics-Reis and CoStar.

Vacancy rates, meanwhile, fell to the lowest level last spring in CoStar records dating back to 2000, and to their lowest levels in RealPage and Moody’s-Reis records dating back to 2010. Vacancies were only slightly higher in the fourth quarter, averaging 3.3% in L.A. County, 2.2% in Orange County and 2.3% in the Inland Empire, composite data shows.

“There is just nothing available,” said Richard Green, director of USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate. “When you’re looking at 2% vacancy or 2.5% vacancy, that’s basically zero.”

As a general rule, rents are expected to drop when vacancies are above 5% and go up when they’re below 5%.

Now, the rents are climbing again.

Composite numbers from the three rental indexes show Orange County’s average rent at the tail end of 2021 was $2,432 a month, or $368 a month more than in the fourth quarter of 2020.

“Rents fell a lot (in L.A. County) at the beginning of the pandemic,” Green said. “But they’ve not only caught up, they’ve more than caught up. And in particular, in O.C., they’ve just gone gangbusters.”

The L.A. County average was $2,264 a month, up $205 in a year; the Inland Empire average was $1,873 a month, up $272.

Those are the biggest one-year gains in the composite index dating at least to 2011.

Health care worker Randy Furbush saw the impact of those hikes firsthand while shopping for an apartment in recent months. He was looking for an affordable rental close to his job in Orange County. He couldn’t find one.

“The prices were extremely expensive,” he said.

Instead, on Jan. 25, he moved across the county line into a one-bedroom unit in Chino, paying $2,155 a month.

“It was somewhat hard,” Furbush, 24, said of his apartment search. “I guess you had to make some sacrifices.”

Randy Furbush, 24, stands in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment in Homecoming at the Preserve in Chino on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Furbush has recently moved into his apartment in Chino after failing to find affordable housing in Orange County where he works in healthcare. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Returning to L.A.

Apartment statistics represent just a fraction of the 2.8 million rental households living in L.A., Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Research firms tend to focus on larger, professionally managed apartment complexes, failing to capture rentals owned by smaller operators and mom and pop landlords.

Members of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, made up mainly of owners with fewer than 10 properties, say that while L.A. County rents have indeed rebounded during the past six months, they have yet to catch up to March 2020 lease rates.

“Our vacancies are down, definitely down, but our rents are not at pre-pandemic levels,” said Matt Williams, principal for Williams Real Estate Advisors, which manages 650 units in Los Angeles, primarily in small buildings.

While there is no up-to-date data for small buildings and mom and pop owners, Williams said one-bedroom apartments in West Hollywood have gone from $2,600 a month pre-COVID to $2,199 with one month’s free rent.

“I’m not getting back to that $2,600 on that one-bedroom,” he said.

The pandemic continues to dog the rental market, with a number of smaller landlords still hurting financially from eviction bans that left apartments occupied by non-paying tenants, association members say.

The Census’ Household Pulse Survey for the period ending on Jan. 10 showed 18% of Southern California tenants — almost one in five — were behind on their rent. That’s almost as many as in December 2020, when 22% were behind on the rent. Southern California property managers say fewer than 10% missed rent payments pre-COVID.

The pandemic had an inverse impact on coastal and inland rental markets, driving work-from-home employees from high-cost job centers in L.A. and Orange counties to cheaper, more spacious rentals in the Inland Empire.

Last year that trend start to ease.

“Employers are getting their employees to come back to work. People who may have migrated out of these urban areas are probably coming back,” said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles.

Green said there’s little data to confirm the trend definitively, but he agreed demand is returning in L.A.

“When you look at (Los Angeles County’s) vacancy rate at the beginning of the pandemic, it did go up from 4.5% to 5%, and 5% is high for L.A.,” he said. “But now it’s dropped back down to 3.3%,” implying that people are returning to L.A. County.

The effects of eviction moratoriums still linger as well. Although the statewide eviction ban ended on Sept. 30, tenants who applied for rent relief can’t be evicted through March. And the Board of Supervisors extended L.A. County’s moratorium through next December.

That could be contributing to the lower vacancy rate, giving renters strong incentives not to move and landlords incentives not to rent.

“There’s a lot of owners with vacant units who (were) reluctant to rent” during the moratorium,Yukelson said.

Some Southern California tenants may be staying put because they can’t find anything as cheap as they’re now paying, said Randall Lewis, senior executive vice president for marketing at the Upland-based Lewis Group of Companies, which manages 13,000 apartments.

“In our properties, there are fewer tenants moving during the pandemic,” Lewis said. “During normal occupancy, we see 50% to 60% of tenants renew leases. Now, 60% to 70% are staying.”

More jobs, fewer completions

Apartment construction long has lagged job creation in the region. More so now as the economy recovers and supply chain disruptions slow the pace of apartment construction.

Lewis and Green said the pandemic delayed apartment completions by four to six months.

Meanwhile, job recovery has outpaced national levels.

“It takes longer to finish stuff. So if you look at the time between a place being permitted and a place being available for occupancy, the lag times seem to be getting longer,” Green said. “Which means stuff that normally would be available is not available.”

Because of the rental shortage, Victoria Bautista is worried she and her husband won’t find a place of their own before their baby is born in May.

The couple, who have been living with Bautista’s in-laws in Chino Hills, has been shopping for a home in the $2,600- to $2,800-a-month range since November. They’ve looked at more than 15 properties and applied to at least a dozen rentals. They keep losing out, however. Their real estate agent believes they’re competing with overqualified renters with higher incomes.

“It’s a no-brainer for the landlord because they choose the one with a higher income,” said Bautista, 25, who works as a school speech pathology assistant. “We’ve been looking for a small, three-bedroom house or condo or townhome. We may now have to look for a two-bedroom apartment because it’s been so hard to get in.”

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Their goal was to rent in Chino, Ontario or Eastvale to be close to family and their church. Now, they’re looking in Rancho Cucamonga and Riverside as well.

“We want to be close to family and friends when we have our baby. (But our applications) are not being accepted,” she said. “I tell my friends you need five months if you want to find a place.”

Friesz, meanwhile, is getting ready to move into her new duplex in Huntington Beach, cleaning out the garage. As she worked, passersby asked her if the unit was available.

“At least six people have stopped by because there’s nothing out there,” she said.

— SCNG staff writer Roxana Kopetman

Categories
News

Social Workers Decry Understaffing

Before “petri dish” COVID-19 working conditions sparked office protests, County of Orange social workers have long been overworked while understaffed – likely disrupting their ability to aid families in crisis and protect abused children.

Emergency staff who are a person’s first encounter with the Social Services Agency feel burnt out and overwhelmed – shouldering large caseloads due to understaffing, being sent alone at night to unstable home situations, and stressed by long hours at the agency’s “toxic” workplace. 

That’s all according to a set of grievances against Social Services Agency management, voiced on behalf of workers last month by the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), a union representing roughly 18,000 of the region’s public sector employees.

The problem impacts social workers at the agency’s Children and Family Services Division, according to a Dec. 15 letter from OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield. The division works to protect children from abuse and neglect and assists at-risk families. The letter says the more pressing issues are within the division’s emergency response program.

Barfield, in a written statement to Voice of OC on Thursday, said the issues from his letter last month are ongoing and “will not be solved overnight,” but that the union is now working with the agency on some fixes.

“These issues have persisted for years. We have the receipts to prove it. We have the common sense proposals that the Agency has rejected during bargaining, we have the countless letters asking for relief, we have the notes from meetings with high level agency executives where we have brought the issues of overworked Social Workers over and over again,” Barfield said this week.

Read the letter here.

Last week, the agency’s clerical staff and other county employees also protested “petri dish” pandemic working conditions and the spread of COVID-19 throughout county facilities tasked with delivering critical public services and assistance to residents, as they called for remote-work allowances. 

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“Workplace toxicity has now reached a breaking point. Without immediate action the physical and mental health of workers and the welfare of those who rely on them risk being seriously compromised.”

A Dec. 15 letter from OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield

Since receiving the complaints late last year, County of Orange management says it’s now studying how the Social Services Agency can take the load off overworked staff by streamlining operations and holding forums for workers. 

Responding to Barfield’s December letter, Social Services Agency spokesperson Jamie Cargo said the office is taking measures to address employee well-being and safety, in a Thursday email.

“Over the past year, SSA Children and Family Services (CFS) Division leadership and County Human Resources has worked to implement changes related to workload and staffing,” Cargo said.

For example, Cargo wrote, “[Social Services Agency] continuously explores new opportunities that will allow for the funding of additional staffing and/or help manage workload. One opportunity being assessed addresses newly available funds for enhanced support of Emergency Response workers and supportive services.”

She also notes that in this past fiscal year, the agency has hired “150 social workers in (Children and Family Services). Additionally, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has authorized 76 new social worker positions since July 2020.”

And on Tuesday this week, Orange County’s elected Board of Supervisors approved a nearly $500,000 contract with a workplace management consultant to study how the agency can streamline its operations and take the load off overworked staff. 

Barfield, speaking in support of the Board’s action at the meeting, called it an “opportunity to include the workers in the outcome of those studies.”

Such willingness to listen hasn’t always been the case, according to OCEA’s letter.

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“​​During bargaining […] OCEA has repeatedly proposed bargaining proposals crafted to remedy these long-standing issues but those proposals were consistently rejected by the Agency and the County,” Barfield’s letter adds.

The union’s letter demanded that agency management come to the table with workers on these issues, after a period marked by what Barfield describes as “frequent resistance and little or no positive change” from county leaders. 

“Senior Social Workers” at the Children and Family Services (CFS) division are usually required to have a Master’s degree in Social Work, according to the county’s list of qualifications from an online job board.

Many of the programs administered by the agency are funded through state and federal money.

[Read: OC Moves Millions From Health Agency to Help Cover Sheriff Overruns]

“The toxic work environment throughout (Children and Family Services), particularly in Emergency Response, has robbed workers of the time necessary to achieve the positive outcomes the county desires and the community needs. None of us can afford to allow workers to continue to be subjected to an intolerable work environment,” reads Barfield’s Dec. 15 letter.

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Social workers and the union are demanding new overtime pay policies, a better system for distributing caseloads, more reasonable workload expectations, increased staffing to keep up with community needs while letting other workers take time off, and the same counseling services for social workers that other first responders receive, according to the letter. 

The letter proposes some quick fixes to the workplace issue at SSA — and some longer-term ones. 

For example, allowing workers to operate within one assigned city or region – as opposed to driving to different parts of the county – could increase the availability of an investigating emergency social worker to “complete several visits and return visits in the same day, increasing compliance and contacts,” Barfield’s letter reads.

OCEA is also calling for financial incentives like car stipends for social workers whose vehicle mileage adds up from making visits, and better compensation for workers who carry out the agency’s more intense work — especially on holidays and weekend shifts. 

Chief among emergency social workers’ complaints is the lack of balance that comes with an unpredictable schedule, “forced overtime,” work-created trauma affecting personal life, and weekends spent recuperating from exhaustion, stress, and “emotionally overwhelming experiences,” according to Barfield’s letter.

Another issue is safety. 

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The letter says employees are sent out alone at night “in unsafe neighborhoods and unstable situations” and are “driving long distances fatigued after working all day and into the night.” 

The letter says workers feel “perpetually short staffed due to recruitment and retention challenges” while there’s a “lack of incentive for employees to stay in the most challenging program with the worst working conditions.”

OCEA says management could quickly utilize clerical staff to “save a social worker 1-6 hours of work.”

Like other first responders, OCEA says Social Services management should provide trauma-focused counseling to all emergency social workers. 

The union also says SSA should assign two social workers to any referral involving a death or residences in different regions. 

“We want to help the Agency provide high quality services to the community. For that to occur, the Agency must recommit to help social workers by providing them safe and supportive working conditions,” Barfield’s letter reads.

Cargo, the Social Services Agency spokesperson, wrote that the agency recognizes “the integral role our social workers play in helping to meet basic needs, ensure safe homes, enhance resiliency and support the overall well-being of vulnerable children, families, elderly and disabled residents.” 

“We are committed to providing a safe and supportive work environment for staff and continuously assess areas where we can make a positive impact,” Cargo said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Categories
News

Some North OC Cities Face an Identity Crisis When Building New Housing

New housing plans across Orange County are often caught in a debate about whether cities should overhaul their landscapes or stick with how they already look.

It’s another point of contention in the ongoing battle to combat the worsening housing crisis, with two separate housing projects in two north OC cities that have played out differently in recent months. 

It also comes as cities across OC wrestle with updating their housing plans to meet home numbers set by the state. 

[Read: OC Cities Adopt New Housing Plans After Fight Against State’s Home Building Mandates]

While Fullerton moves forward with some student housing near Cal State Fullerton in an effort to produce a “college town” look, Brea faces pushback from residents who argue replacing an old movie theater with housing will dramatically alter the city’s small town look and worsen traffic. 

Brea Housing Development Faces Increasing Pushback From Residents 

Brea residents have rallied against a proposed housing development that made it through the planning commission Jan. 25.

The project is slated for 161 units — with three stories of parking and five stories of housing — and would replace an out-of-business movie theater right off the 57 freeway in Brea.

[ReadOrange County’s Housing Shortage Debate Flares in Brea]

The project was first introduced to the commission in October and has since undergone a few changes.

This new version includes 28 less units than originally proposed and eliminates the “co-living” aspect of the building — which was defined as multi-bedroom apartments for different people to live in the same unit, each with their own bedroom and bathroom. 

The square footage has also dropped by approximately 7,500 — bringing the plan to 13,800 square feet — and the design of the eighth story has been drawn back to only cover about 48% of the area.

Ted Gribble, a Brea resident who started a Facebook group against the proposed development last August, said these changes aren’t enough.

“The right course of action for us is to try and get some face time with the city council members and let them know our concerns,” Gribble said in a Jan. 26 phone interview. “Apparently the applicant spent the last three months revising the project to address the concerns of the residents. It doesn’t seem like he did much addressing of the concerns.”

The biggest community concern about the Brea housing development is traffic. 

Residents of the nearby Glenbrook neighborhood say traffic is already a major problem in the shopping center and surrounding areas, and the new building would only make it worse.

Although the project applicants have repeatedly voiced that a traffic study shows the project will not worsen, residents don’t trust the study or these promises.

Traffic is a concern echoed by residents throughout Orange County when cities debate on where to build new housing.

Since the project would replace a movie theater, the study stated traffic in the afternoons would actually be reduced.

However, the theater has been closed for nearly two years, and residents say that traffic and parking issues exist even without the theater in operation.

“The traffic studies, for instance, are specious to the degree that they rely on comparison with a theater … [that] has been gone for many many years,” Doug Matthews, 45-year resident said at the Jan. 25 planning commission meeting.

Gribble said many residents worry about the city growing too large, but his biggest fear is the effect on nearby schools.

“[The schools] can’t even afford to get the facilities up to working order now, and if you add hundreds of students, it’s only going to exacerbate the issue,” said Gribble, who has two young children himself.

Waad Nadhir, the applicant of the design, said the project will produce over $800,000 in school impact fees. Nadhir said they will also offer an additional $75,000 contribution to three local schools.

“We looked at traffic, we looked at parking [and] we looked at school impact,” Nadhir said at the meeting. “We looked at addressing an acute housing need of a younger generation, and we looked at addressing a housing demand of empty-nesters.”

Although a large number of Brea residents spoke against the project at the meeting, some people also spoke in favor.

“As a community member of Brea, I am in support of this project,” Anna Robb, a 6-year Brea resident, said at the meeting. “I would be someone who would definitely move to this property.”

City council members have yet to make a final decision on the development.

Fullerton Moves to Make Area Near CSUF Look Like a College Town

Right next to Brea, Fullerton is moving to make the area around Cal State Fullerton into more of a college town, with the approval of a new five-story apartment building — at the northeast corner of Chapman Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue —  for student housing. 

The campus has long been known as a commuter college among local university students because it has very limited on-campus student housing, with some rental opportunities in the surrounding community.

The Fullerton City Council approved construction of a 377-unit, student-centered development near the campus in order to increase the “college town” atmosphere of the area and provide students more housing opportunities.

Kathleen Savant, Director of Local Community Relations at the Cal State Fullerton, said the Fullerton project is much needed.

“At CSUF only 5% of students currently live on campus, leaving 39,000 to seek housing from the surrounding areas, not because they choose to, but because we haven’t been able to meet the demand of housing on our campus,” Savant said at the meeting. “We rely on the community to provide housing for our students.”

Savant also said that university President Fram Virjee has worked to change the perception that the university is a commuter school since he started the role in 2019.

The project description notes the development can house 1,103 residents with 630 parking spaces at 12,438 square feet. It’s slated to replace an old office building.

The design originally was discussed by Fullerton City Council members in November, but the council referred the plans back to the planning commission to address parking and design concerns.

Parking was the biggest issue with the housing development, and revisions upped the parking spaces from 0.27 per bed to 0.70 per bed, including the overflow parking.

The developers have also been working with the university to lease an overflow parking lot down the street from the project site with approximately 185 spots for residents to use as needed. 

Public commenters at the Jan. 18 meeting were overall supportive of the project and happy to see the university finding more housing options. 

“I see this underutilized aged office building a few times a week, so I welcome a new project and functionable piece of architecture to furnish housing for the students at Cal State,” Fullerton resident Bill Quisenberry said at the meeting.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.