Lisbon Vista Heights

By Kiri Blakeley

Jul 7, 2024

Michelle Shea, a single mom with two daughters, was homeless right before moving to the Woodbury community in Irvine, CA.

The wealthy enclave features homes with manicured gardens, shimmering pools, and typical price tags of around $1.5 million. Yet tucked within the community is an affordable housing complex called The Arbor, where Shea pays just $805 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

“I don’t know where my kids and I would be right now if it wasn’t for The Arbor,” says Shea. “I don’t think we would have made it.”

Shea says moving into the community in 2009 completely changed her life. It led to a steady job at a bank and provided a stable base where her children could “study hard.” Her eldest now attends the University of California, Los Angeles.

With all that The Arbor has given her family, Shea hopes to change people’s perspectives about what affordable housing really is, who its residents are, and what they bring to a neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of fear that surrounds the idea of affordable housing,” says Michael Massie, chief development officer for Jamboree, which built The Arbor.

The upshot of this fear, according to Massie, is that, although Californians understand the state’s dire need for more affordable homes, homeowners often take a “not in my backyard” stance to proposals of any units going up in their own neighborhood.

“They’ll say they want it,” Massie says wryly, “just not here.”

Saved by affordable housing

Shea’s two daughters were toddlers when a divorce and illness sent her into a tailspin. Diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called scleroderma, she juggled a low-paying job at Office Depot with long hospital stays for two years. Eventually, she lost her apartment.

The family of three bounced from hotels to shelters to extra rooms offered by well-meaning acquaintances. Then a member of her church told her that The Arbor was being built in Irvine. Applicants could make no more than 30% to 60% of the area’s median income (which for Orange County is $90,400) and would need to undergo a credit check and interview.

Shea didn’t think she would pass because she had no credit history and a mountain of unpaid medical bills. But she applied anyway and was granted an interview. Still expecting to be turned down, Shea was shocked when the interviewer informed her that her application was approved.

After all she’d been through, Shea says, The Arbor “was a gift from God.”

Why homeowners are afraid of affordable housing

The Golden State has become a flashpoint for the country’s housing crisis, with median home sale prices surpassing $900,000 for the first time in May 2024. Many of its efforts to ease homelessness have resulted in scandal.

A recent Cal Matters investigation found that a year after Gov. Gavin Newsom promised 1,200 tiny homes for the homeless, those houses have yet to be built, held up by questions ranging from the best way to finance them to where they should be placed.

Despite these hurdles, Jamboree has built more than 100 developments in California. The 10,000 apartments have housed 27,000 residents over the past 35 years.

Massie says the nonprofit’s main mission—besides building affordable housing in the most expensive state in the country—is debunking many of the myths about affordable housing.

For instance, he says that many believe that affordable housing—and the people who live in it—brings crime to the area.

“In all the statistics we’ve looked at, there just isn’t an increase in crime,” he asserts. “We have a lot of data that points to the fact that affordable housing, especially if it’s well maintained, doesn’t negatively impact property values—and in a lot of cases, increases it.”® economist Jiayi Xu agrees that affordable housing could have a positive impact on some communities.

“Properly planned and maintained affordable housing can revitalize neighborhoods by attracting new investments and enhancing infrastructure,” says Xu. “These improvements can boost property values and promote community growth and stability.”

Affordable housing in Orange County added about $16,000 in value to nearby homes, according to a 2022 University of California at Irvine Livable Cities Lab study. It also found that affordable housing reduced most types of crime, especially violent crimes such as robbery and assault. And, it noted that Irvine, the U.S. city with the most affordable housing units, was also the safest, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting statistics.

“It just goes to prove that you can have a lot of affordable housing and be voted the safest city in America for 16 years running,” said Livable Cities Lab director George Tita about the study.

Orange County has so fully embraced solving the homeless situation that Massie says the organization might even have trouble filling new units meant for homeless veterans.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he says.

Fitting into the neighborhood

Massie says he likes to take skeptical neighbors to a cul-de-sac near one of the developments. At the end is a market-rate rental building, a condo, and a Jamboree building. He will then ask the neighbor to pick out the affordable housing development.

“They never can,” he says.

Massie says the organization tries to put as much effort into the buildings’ interiors as the exteriors, but the units are not luxurious.

“We have to be responsible with our resources. But, for example, we stopped using plastic laminate countertops because we’d have to replace them three or four times over 20 years. It was actually more economical to make them with better materials like stone,” he says.

Massie also points out that unlike a regular rental building, not just anyone can move in. Aside from strict low-income requirements, applicants are vetted to make sure they seem responsible and respectful.

“I tell people we’re like any other apartment building, but with more scrutiny for residents,” he says.

Part of making the developments attractive isn’t merely to fit the look of the community, but to give residents a sense of pride and get them invested in taking care of their surroundings.

“There’s an ownership factor even when they don’t own it,” says Massie. “Most of our residents feel very lucky. They value and take care of their homes.”

Jamboree’s housing developments also do more than simply provide affordable places to live. Each development has a resident service coordinator who helps residents based on their needs, whether they are elderly, disabled, in need of mental health care, or—like Shea—in need of help finding a new job.

When Shea’s doctor told her she would need a more sedentary job to manage her illness, she was able to use the building’s computer lab to job hunt, soon landing with a bank. And the tip that the bank was hiring came from The Arbor’s property manager.

“People need so much more than a roof and four walls,” says Marissa Feliciano, Jamboree’s director of marketing and communications.

The stigma surrounding affordable housing

Massie says the stigma around affordable housing can be traced to the construction of what is colloquially termed “the projects.”

“It wasn’t responsible how affordable housing was dealt with in the midcentury,” he says. “There were these high-rise buildings that were separate and segregated from the community.”

City governments ran the developments, and usually not well. The buildings weren’t aesthetically pleasing, didn’t blend with the environs, and weren’t well maintained. Crime flourished.

A 2015 study showed that New York City Housing Authority housing residents experienced double and triple the amount of crime as the average New Yorker.

“The murder rate is far worse in NYCHA projects than elsewhere,” according to 2019 NYPD data.

But the concept of affordable housing is changing. Now, a certain amount of units within luxury developments are often set aside in exchange for tax abatements so that these units blend in better with the surrounding neighborhood.

Massie says Jamboree housing couldn’t be more different from the midcentury idea of the projects.

“From architectural, security, and planning standpoints, we weave our developments into the community,” he explains.

And it seems to be working: Shea asserts that no one in the community has ever made her feel unwelcome.

“No one ever made us feel ‘less than,’” she says. “Our heads were always lifted, and we were made to feel like part of the neighborhood. Now my children are on their way to being productive citizens. I tell them, ‘You’ve got to pay it forward.’”,neighborhood,-%E2%80%99%3A%20Why%20Affordable%20Housing

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