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LOCAL

In Santa Paula, a white minority blames the poor for the town's problems

Many people in Santa Paula, when asked what they do for a living, respond with the name of the fruit that they pick: "Naranja." "Fresa." Orange. Strawberry.

The fields have long defined Santa Paula, literally and culturally. In tidy rows, they stretch 10 miles to the east and west along the floor of the valley in Ventura County. The workers tie little pieces of foil on some crops to scare off the birds. On sunny days, there are thousands of reflections; it looks like they're harvesting jewels.

In the middle is a sweet, tired town of roughly 35,000 people, three-quarters of them Latino and more than half considered low-income under county standards.

For several years, there has been a tide of sentiment that Santa Paula has missed out, that it has become a dumping ground of sagging roofs and 99-cent stores while neighbors like Moorpark and Camarillo have prospered. And some critics -- many of them members of the white minority -- have decided that the poor are the problem.

This summer, about 400 people signed a petition asking the City Council to approve a moratorium on "low-end" housing until it represents less than 15% of the housing stock in Santa Paula. Moratorium supporters say it would take 50 years to achieve that goal -- which would mean a 50-year ban on the construction of low-income housing.

"What we want is a balance," said Larry Sagely, one of the leading voices in town calling for a moratorium. "Let the free market run."

Of particular concern, said community activist Richard Main, 70, is government-subsidized housing. Those apartment complexes, several of which have been built in recent years, are typically not subject to property taxes.

"They're a dead drag on the economy," Main said. "And if your revenues aren't covering your costs, you've got a problem."

Main and the other moratorium supporters have not been shy about introducing race and ethnicity into the debate; they have registered their offense, for instance, when some of those who have asked for additional affordable housing have needed an interpreter to speak in front of the City Council. And all sides agree that a moratorium would affect Latinos and, in particular, farmworkers and their families, more than anyone else. But those who support a moratorium say they are not racists.

"All of us," Main said, "came here from someplace else."

Latinos have been a significant portion of Santa Paula for more than half a century, many of them drawn by the county's $1-billion annual agricultural industry, and they have largely sustained Santa Paula, particularly after the exodus of the oil industry in the 1970s.

The council appears unlikely to approve the moratorium. City officials have concluded that it would be legal only if it could be shown that such construction would have an "adverse impact upon . . . public health or safety." That would be a difficult bar to surpass, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, even if the council was interested in pursuing a moratorium.

But some of those pushing for the moratorium have pledged to take it to a ballot if they cannot persuade the City Council to approve it.

Many in town are aghast at the possibility.

John Nichols has long lived on a hillside overlooking the valley floor. That's how it worked here for years; whites lived in the hills, overlooking denser Latino areas.

In recent years, things have changed. Among other things, Nichols said, 25 farmworkers are now crammed into a single-family house on his street -- a common occurrence here, and not one that is welcome in many neighborhoods.

Still, Nichols said he can think of a host of things the city could do to try to improve its lot, including asking people to spend their money locally rather than driving to the malls and the big-box stores in Ventura and the San Fernando Valley.

What's more, he said, the timing of the initiative doesn't make sense. It was true that Santa Paula development was long stagnant, but in recent years developers have proposed building 4,000 homes -- in a city that has fewer than 9,000 homes today.

The largest development proposal, in an area known as Fagan Canyon, was rejected by voters, but hundreds of those proposed homes are on track for construction in coming years.

Many would be marketed to upscale buyers and would presumably help achieve the housing "balance" that critics are looking for.

"Some people just don't like to see a Mexican boot shop on Main Street because it looks like Tijuana," Nichols said. "They're just trying to wave a magic wand. But they would be doing nothing to build community. It's social engineering. It's a war on the poor. I can't find another way to look at it."

When Irma Ortiz moved into a Santa Paula apartment, she inherited a table and three chairs. That would have been fine except that she had no money and no additional furniture -- and there were four of them, including her husband, a farmworker, and two teenage daughters.

"The ones who were more hungry would get the chairs," Ortiz, 37, said with a laugh. Then her voice turned to a whisper: "The floor was soft. It used to bend when we walked. There were holes in the wall where rats and mice came in."

In 2007, her family moved into a government-subsidized apartment building called Vista Hermosa, the type of development that would be banned under a moratorium.

The Ortiz family had been paying $1,000 a month for their apartment; Augustine's salary from the fields was $1,200 to $2,000 a month, depending on the season. At Vista Hermosa, they are asked to pay 30% of their income.

The building is clean and new. They keep rosebushes next to their front door and porcelain angels on the windowsills. It is the first time her daughters have had their own bedroom.

Each apartment comes with its own computer; both daughters have taken to the computer quickly and their grades are rising.

"Agradezca a dios," Ortiz said, her hands folded on her lap. "Thank God."

Advocates for the poor say the complex demonstrates that there is a need for more affordable housing, not less; there is a waiting list of 135 families and there are just 24 apartments, each occupied by a family that includes at least one farmworker.

Back in Ortiz's old neighborhood, past corrugated metal shacks and dusty, barren lots, Maria Jimenez, 35, was outside on the walkway of her apartment building, stroking the hair of her 4-year-old daughter, Yessenia.

She and her husband and their four children, as well as another family -- 10 people in all -- share a two-bedroom apartment.

They pay $500 a month. He earns $1,200 a month picking fruit. Inside, there were bunk beds in the living room. A picture of the Virgin de Guadalupe was glued to the door.

"Es dificil," Jimenez said. "It's hard."

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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