Five Irvine City Council candidates who participated in the second of two debates hosted by the Associated Students of the University of California–Irvine (ASUCI), on Oct. 14, said they want to build more affordable housing, safely reopen the economy, and build on the city’s Climate Action Plan.
All 14 candidates were invited to participate in the virtual debate, however Vice Mayor Mike Carroll, Mark Newgent, John Park, and Hai Yang Liang declined.
When candidates were asked how they would handle reopening the economy amid the pandemic, most agreed a safe recovery will hinge on frequent testing, social distancing, and ample supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Carrie O’Malley, a state public policy expert, vowed to create two public-private sector advisory committees, one to assist small businesses and another—including doctors, nurses and health-care providers—to address public health.
The committees would work to ramp up testing, ensure there is enough PPE, and make sure loans are available to small businesses.
Larry Agran, a public interest attorney and former mayor of Irvine, blasted national, regional, and local elected officials. “With respect to the pandemic, not only have we had a national failure, we have had a total failure of preparedness as well here in the city of Irvine, and in Orange County.”
He said Irvine should create an office of public health and appoint a chief health officer. He also wants to create offices for small business assistance and emergency rental assistance.
“Obviously, we need not to pay attention to the Board of Supervisors, and not to pay attention to the Trump anti-maskers and so many others who want to reopen … too early, and without adequate preparation,” he said. The county has reopened schools too soon, he said.
Tammy Kim, a city finance commissioner and educator, blamed city council for not fighting for its “fair share” of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding from the county.
“Currently, we’re experiencing a $22 million deficit budget shortfall as a result of decline in sales tax revenue, hotel tax revenue, and recreational fees. But, unfortunately, what many Irvine residents don’t realize is that the County of Orange received $500 million from the federal government for the CARES Act,” she said.
Up to $49 million of those funds should have gone to Irvine to assist businesses and pay for rental relief programs, she said. “Unfortunately, we have a city council led by a mayor who will not stand up directly to the Board of Supervisors to ensure that the City of Irvine receives our fair share of resources.”
Laura Bratton, a family manager, said that, if elected, she would look into the CARES Act funding. “Irvine should have got $49 million. To me, it makes no sense that we’re in a deficit right now.”
Following the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines is crucial and means wearing masks, she said. “Respect your neighbor, respect the person six feet away from you, and wear a mask.”
“We’ve talked a lot about how we didn’t get $49 million,” said Dylan Green, a graduate student at UCI. “[But] I want to talk about solutions moving forward. We can’t go back and change how we reacted to COVID-19.”
He noted that one use of the CARES Act funding Irvine did receive was a $2 million rental assistance program. He would like to see that program expanded.
Green said an eviction ban should remain in place, but the economy also needs to reopen so people can work to pay their rent. “That’s going to help with a budget shortfall, because we’ll get the taxes back into the economy,” he said.
Candidates were asked how they would build on the city’s Climate Action Plan and protect the local environment. Environmental measures were also a prominent topic at the first forum held by the student association on Oct. 12.
“Climate change is … the biggest existential threat we have facing humanity,” Kim said.
She said for Irvine and UCI to help lead green tech, students from all over the world need to be able to come “to build upon our city of innovation.” She criticized the Trump administration for its proposed limits on student visas.
Currently, international students can stay in the United States indefinitely as long as they maintain their student status. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposed in September limits requiring students to reapply after four years, or after only two years if they are from countries with a greater “visa overstay rate.”
Bratton backed the idea of brainstorming with the “young minds at UCI,” and warned against overbuilding, creating more traffic, and losing green space to more office buildings. “We need to stand up as a community and say, ‘No more!’”
She supports solar panels and recycling programs, but questioned the cost of expanding public transit. “We don’t need to waste any more money.”
Green supports the city’s proposed plan for Community Choice Energy (CCE). The state allows for CCE, which is the ability of local governments to procure energy, set rates, and collect revenue. CCE programs give customers the option of getting a higher percentage of their power from renewable sources.
Irvine commissioned a feasibility study in 2018 for implementing a CCE. The study was completed last year, and proponents highlight the savings it predicts—$7.7 million per year for Irvine residents and businesses, and $112,000 per year for the City in municipal energy costs.
Green praised the fleet of electric-powered buses at the UCI campus as a good example to be followed citywide.
“We all talk about working with the young people, but these people were presenting solutions for years, and people have been ignoring them. I mean, some of the biggest climate change research was done here at UCI,” Green said.
Agran also supports building on the city’s Climate Action Plan, and touted Irvine as a world leader in fighting climate change.
“It’s imperative that the city and the university work much more closely on this global challenge, just as we did when I was mayor in the … late 1980s, early ’90s. We instituted a ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting compounds that directly addressed the stratospheric ozone layer depletion problem,” Agran said.
“It was a global story. Other cities copied what we did. And, as a result, we had local, state, national and international action that resulted in that case, an action plan that indeed, repaired the ozone layer over time.”
Agran also said the city should vastly expand its iShuttle program, which helps connect commuters—particularly those working at the Irvine Spectrum and the Irvine Business Complex—with Metrolink stations.
Kim said she supports the CCE. “It would end the monopoly and bring freedom of choice and competition into the electricity marketplace, and as a result, would reduce our rates.”
She said all municipal buildings should meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, and that the city needs “to take bold steps to make sure that Irvine is 100 percent energy efficient, which includes requiring that all new construction is designed for net zero impact.”
O’Malley said the city should work with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to explore new forms of public transit. She suggested bringing OC Flex to Irvine. OC Flex is an Uber-like system where users download a phone app and pay $5 a day for unlimited travel on mini-buses within the city and to adjacent cities.
“Right now, it’s being piloted in Mission Viejo, Huntington Beach, and a couple other cities. It has done well, and it’s the perfect option,” she said.
Candidates were asked how they would increase affordable housing in the city and ensure it is well-distributed.
Bratton said she wants to examine the affordable housing issue more thoroughly before jumping into any new plans, but said there are already several housing programs available.
“Call 211. Call Families Forward,” Bratton said, encouraging students and residents in need to search online for affordable housing waiting lists and get on them. “They’re available, and you can utilize them.”
“I came here on the low-income program, so I’m fully aware that Irvine does allocate two percent of [its] apartment homes to low-income residents,” she said. “There’s a host of people that I’ve met here that came to Irvine on that program, and they used it as a stepping stone, went back to school, and got a better job to where they were able to pay the rent and stay in Irvine, or maybe decided to move to Mission Viejo or Laguna Beach.”
Green said Irvine has the most affordable housing units of any nearby cities in Orange County, but that there are few vacancies because the city has grown rapidly. “The City Council needs to explicitly zone certain areas as affordable housing,” he said.
O’Malley suggested creating more public-private sector partnerships and working more closely with state legislators to grant tax breaks to landlords willing to cut rent costs for their tenants.
While it’s possible to forge partnerships, they usually require arm wrestling with developers who generally want “high-end, high-profit housing,” Agran said.
The best way to make housing more affordable is to pay people higher wages, he said. He said the city council should bring back the “living wage,” which was $2 more per hour than the state minimum, a policy he and others had helped institute years ago.
If elected, Kim promised to create more workforce housing, so that more mid-range salaried workers who choose to work and live in Irvine can afford to do so. The city is currently required to plan for more than 12,000 affordable units, “so, we have to do a lot more,” she said.
“At the most recent update, the city maintains currently an inventory of about 4,100 affordable rental units and 13 home ownership units for low-income households, but the waitlist is like 5,000.”
Irvine has doubled in size over the past decade, but its affordable housing inventory hasn’t grown at the same rate, making housing even more expensive, Kim said. “We now have more renters than we have homeowners for this very reason.”