Protecting redevelopment

City leaders act fast to secure assets, projects

Chico City Councilman Andy Holcombe did not hesitate to defend the work of city leaders to promote affordable housing and protect various associated projects that would be in jeopardy under Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to shutter redevelopment agencies to help balance the state budget.

He was speaking in response to criticism voiced during a special meeting of the City Council and Chico Redevelopment Agency Monday evening (March 7) at council chambers. The meeting was the continuation of another council and RDA special meeting held the previous Friday evening.

“If this means grabbing RDA funds, I’ll be ready to grab every time,” he said. “These are our funds. These are local funds. These are city funds that benefit the entire community.”

Holcombe’s comments related most directly to those of regular City Council attendee Stephanie Taber, who, earlier in the meeting, castigated the panel for a number of its actions, including “committing the citizens of Chico to long-term indebtedness.”

Taber reminded the council members, who had assembled in their role as governing body of the RDA, that the funding they were contemplating on allocating to an affordable-housing project was taxpayers’ money. Doing so would lead to draconian cuts by the Brown administration, and take monies from social programs such as In Home Supportive Services, said Taber, a Chico Tea Party Patriot and executive assistant for Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl.

“What an example,” chided Taber. “Grab what you can and damn the consequences.”

Taber was among about a dozen citizens who showed up for the meeting. The agenda called for the panel to consider entering into an $8.8 million loan agreement with the Affordable Housing Development Corp. for its planned 90-unit low-income apartment project on a vacant five-acre parcel west of Orchard Supply Hardware on West East Avenue.

There were other concerns aside from the price tag. For example, resident Pat Jones voiced worries about increased traffic in the region.

Andy Szolosi, a Chico resident who works with at-risk youth, advocated the benefits of the project. He said such a facility would give financially challenged families a fresh start and would benefit the community as a whole.

The only other resident to comment on the item was Mike Trolinder, who had concerns about the aesthetics of the complex. Trolinder urged the city to do due diligence when vetting the design aspects of the project. “You think we’re getting rid of blight, but you might be creating it,” he said.

Freshman Councilman Mark Sorensen noted that the project is not within the boundaries of the redevelopment project area and the project site along West East Avenue is not in any way blighted. He also questioned the value to the taxpayers, as did recently appointed Councilman Bob Evans, who called the project extremely expensive and rationalized why he would be voting against it.

“When times are flush, it might have been a different answer,” said Evans, who claimed that the $200,000 per-unit cost could be accomplished for half that price.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn quickly pointed out the value of that price tag, noting that it not only pays for construction but also to sustain rents at an affordable rate for 55 years. She also noted that redevelopment funds do not have to be used in blighted areas.

Indeed, earlier in the meeting, Sherry Morgado, the city’s director of Housing and Neighborhood Services, made an important distinction when she noted that there are two sides to redevelopment. One aspect is to mitigate blight. The other is to address a lack of low- and moderate-income housing. Several members of city staff explained that’s it’s legal to provide funds for affordable housing located outside of redevelopment project areas so long as the housing is found to benefit the project area.

At the end of the 45-minute meeting, the panel voted 5-2, with Sorensen and Evans dissenting, in favor of the project.

Monday’s meeting had carried over from Friday, when the council and RDA tackled several similar proposals and ultimately approved an additional $8.4 million in funding for three other projects, including Habitat for Humanity’s Habitat Greens neighborhood.

City Manager Dave Burkland apologized for having to hold the special meeting on extremely short notice. (The city released an agenda 24 hours and three minutes in advance, though the press release faxed to the CN&R was time stamped at 18:36 hours, meaning it went out less than 24 hours before the meeting, which is a violation of the state’s open-meeting law.) He noted that Brown’s plan to eliminate RDAs was moving forward very quickly and that the city needed to act swiftly to protect certain assets, since he expected the Assembly to convene on the plan this week.

In addition to moving forward on the affordable-housing projects, the group agreed in a unanimous vote to convey several pieces of RDA-owned property to the city during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting. Shawn Tillman, a senior city planner, had explained that the properties, including a site along Comanche Creek, would otherwise have been sold, with the profits distributed by the Butte County auditor-controller to various county taxing entities.

The same thing would happen to notes and deeds of trusts, including the outstanding $1.7 million loan allocated for the remodel of the Hotel Diamond. The RDA voted to convey that loan, as well as two smaller ones, to the city.

Despite assurances from City Attorney Lori Barker that it’s legal to transfer the notes from the RDA to the city, Sorensen remained skeptical. “It almost feels like money laundering,” said Sorensen, who dissented in votes approving the reassignments.