Sespe Ranch Workers to Be Housed at Last

Times Staff Writer

Farm workers at the historic Sespe Ranch near Fillmore appeared to have lost their decade-long battle for housing when they were evicted nearly 1 1/2 years ago from ramshackle homes on the sprawling citrus ranch.

Saturday, however, a mariachi band and a troupe performing traditional Mexican dances will celebrate at a ground-breaking ceremony for the first phase of a new housing project for the ranch's farm labor community.

"You remember the phoenix story?" said Jaime Zepeda, a former farm laborer who helped organize Sespe workers against the eviction. "Well, it's like that. The Rancho Sespe community was extinguished, but we're going to get back together again."

The project will consist of 50 brightly colored row houses in crisp contemporary designs on a 19.5-acre plot two miles west of Piru. It is to open by December.

Another 50 row houses are scheduled to open the following December. A community center and soccer field will follow.

Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., a Saticoy-based nonprofit developer, is building the project.

The owner will be an association made up of building tenants (although individuals never will have the privilege of selling their units.)

Over the next 30 years, their rents will repay a $3.5-million loan from the Farmers Home Administration, which requires that only farm workers occupy the project for that length of time.

The rents will be well below market rates. For instance, a three-bedroom row house will rent for $350, said Jesse Ornelas, a project manager for the developer. A study by Cabrillo of rents for Ventura county houses and apartments in February found that such dwellings rent for between $600 and $975, Ornelas said.

Under Farmer's Home Administration guidelines, a family of four with an annual income of $34,000 or less could qualify for the rentals, provided that about $4,000 of that income is farm-related.

However, officials of the development firm emphasize that the project will probably serve families with half that income--or even less, if only one of the adults works, because the average annual income for a farm worker in Ventura county is $9,000.

The project's designer is John V. Mutlow, the Los Angeles architect who designed Cabrillo Village, the developer's flagship complex for farm workers in Saticoy.

Home to about 150 farm worker families, the project has received several commendations for design excellence, including two awards last week from the California Council of the American Institute of Architects.

"We take pride in what we do," Ornelas said.

The project could not come about at a more critical time, according to the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization that provides information to rural housing assistance groups.

In the last 10 years, FmHA funding for new projects nationwide has dwindled from $68.7 million to $22.6 million, whereas new starts have dropped from 2,575 homes annually in 1979 to 421 homes last year, said the group's director of research, Linda Kravitz. Meanwhile, housing still needs to be constructed for "hundreds of thousands" of farm workers, she said.

"It's just a drop in the bucket, but a wonderful drop all the same," Kravitz said.

The developers hope the Rancho Sespe Farm Labor Community will bring an end to the trauma experienced by the ranch's farm workers.

Homes Destroyed

After their January, 1988, eviction by Rivcom, the company that manages Sespe Ranch, the workers' houses were destroyed.

In all, 43 farm laborers and their families scattered. Some moved to other parts of Ventura County; others left for the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles and even hometowns in Mexico.

"It was like a Diaspora," said Zepeda, who serves on the board of the Rancho Sespe Workers Improvement Assn. "People were moving everywhere."

Of those who stayed in the Fillmore area, a handful managed somehow to buy their own homes, Zepeda said. Most, however, were not so fortunate.

Some moved in with relatives. Others squeezed into rentals with one or two other families, or set up housekeeping in garages. One family of six lived briefly in a van, said Maria Camargo, a housing specialist with the Ventura County Area Housing Authority.

"They had nowhere to go," she said. "It was the feeling of a homeless person."

To this day, many farm workers continue to live in housing that is, at best, too expensive in light of their small salaries or at worst, crowded or substandard, she said. Even those fortunate enough to obtain subsidized housing have suffered.

Take Raul Loza, a field worker for Rivcom whose earnings are not enough to cover the $850 rent on the three-bedroom Fillmore house that Area Housing Authority found for him, his wife and two children. So his wife, Guadalupe, had to work.

The only full-time job she could find is on the graveyard shift at a cassette factory in Valencia, 30 minutes from their home, and she does not drive.

After working in the fields all day, Loza not only drives his wife to Valencia for the 4:30 p.m. shift, but also gets her at 12:30 p.m. By 5:30 a.m., Loza, 35, has to report to his own job.

"It leaves us no time together. I get four hours of sleep each night," he said, "but you have to get by how you can."

Loza, who hopes to move into the first phase of the project, estimates that he will be able to cut his rent in half. While his wife will have to work still, she may be able to take a less lucrative but more convenient job, he said.

For Agustin Alamillo, a 49-year-old former Rivcom worker who has since gone to work at a Newbury Park factory that assembles seats for airplanes, the savings will be even more tangible.

After trying for two months to get subsidized housing, he gave up and settled on a three-bedroom house in Fillmore. Alamillo's wife, Irene, a radish picker, and their 21-year-old son Sergio, a factory worker, scramble to support a household of seven and make the rent, which is $1,525.

"We're barely making it," Alamillo said.

A Lengthy Battle

Some workers had lived in housing at Rancho Sespe for 50 years.

The trouble began in 1979, when Rivcom, a large Sanger-based farming company, bought the citrus ranch, fired 200 workers who had just voted to join the United Farm Workers union, and evicted about 500 workers from the two labor camps on the ranch.

The farm workers contended that the firings were in retaliation for their involvement in union activities, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board later supported the workers.

It ordered Rivcom to allow 200 UFW workers to continue living at the ranch--a decision ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rivcom officials, however, maintained that they should be able to tear down the houses, which were condemned by the county in 1980, whenever they wanted.

The stalemate lasted until 1987, when the ALRB moderated its position, saying the company was not obliged to continue providing housing for the 70 families that had remained on the ranch. The families were evicted.

Today, deep in a lemon grove south of California 126, only a pile of toppled utility poles, scattered abandoned sofas and chairs and several toppled mailboxes hint at what was once a teeming community.

In a northern section of the housing area, several dwellings still stand. Their windows are boarded, and big red X's are painted on their sides.

The developers had hoped to complete their project long before Rivcom marked the houses for demolition, but they met with opposition of their own.

In a 1985 lawsuit, a handful of local farmers had objected that the row houses would open the door to urbanization of agricultural lands. After a complex legal battle, a state appeals court in 1987 allowed Cabrillo to go forward with its plans.

The developer may have won its fight, but the UFW is still at odds with Rivcom, which has objected to an ALRB order that 168 of the fired workers receive a total of $900,000 in back pay, said Karl Lawson, a former union official who participated in the negotiations.

The figure "sounds huge," Lawson acknowledged. "But it's minuscule compared to what was lost. You divide it between 168 workers and you get about $5,000--this for 5 1/2 years without work or medical benefits."

Rivcom Vice President Perry L. Walker would not confirm the figure but said the amount that had been discussed by the two parties fails to take into account "other factors . . . such as housing. People lived in those houses for 10 years without paying rent."

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