Housing the County's Poor : Proposal for Low-Cost Units in San Marcos Meets Stiff Resistance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city of San Marcos has an offer that at first seems hard to refuse: a $4.2-million low-income housing complex for the bargain price of $500,000.

Yet dozens of residents and a few city officials are dead-set against the county's proposal to build and operate a 38-unit apartment building for low-paid farm workers and their families.

The San Marcos City Council will tackle the issue Tuesday when it considers an appeal of the Planning Commission's 4-3 rejection of the county proposal. This makes San Marcos the third North County city in recent months to confront emotional arguments concerning crime and racism amid efforts to build housing for the region's thousands of homeless Latino immigrant workers.

Mike Otavka, a San Marcos apartment complex owner, wonders, "Why are they building farm worker housing in the center of town?" There's no work for farmhands here, he said.

Otavka's 63-unit complex would be a neighbor to the county's housing project near Twin Oaks Valley Road and Richmar Avenue, a stone's throw from the tiny San Marcos City Hall. The farm worker units would not compete with Otavka's two-bedroom apartments, which rent for $600 to $650 a month, he said, "but they will just add to the problem around here."

"The problem," as neighbors see it, is the further deterioration of the area in the center of San Marcos that already is contending with crime, vandalism and housing decay.

The neighborhood is a mix of apartment complexes, ranging from well-groomed to ratty, with a smattering of older bungalows that easily predate the incorporation of the city in 1963. Weed-grown yards and junk piles, scaling paint and boarded-up windows add to the dilapidated look.

A predominance of the residents are Latino, as evidenced by the Spanish surnames on apartment mailboxes.

"This housing project will contribute to the ghettoization of the neighborhood," clinical psychologist Richard Berkoff said. "The symptoms are all there."

Berkoff owns two duplex units in the area that he purchased a few years back as an investment. He is awaiting more construction on the campus of Cal State San Marcos, the state's newest university, which is building toward an enrollment of 25,000. Berkoff plans to turn his properties, which are about a mile south of the campus, into prime student housing.

That won't happen if the area turns into a crime-ridden ghetto, Berkoff said.

He protests that the farm worker housing is just "the latest in the city's plans to concentrate all of the low-income housing right here in this neighborhood. It should be spread out in all areas of the city."

San Marcos Deputy City Manager Paul Malone said that most of the complaints of neighbors about the project are due to misinformation.

The county project is not temporary housing for migrant workers, he explained. It is three-, four- and five-bedroom apartments for families that qualify by earning at least half of their livelihood from agricultural jobs and whose incomes fall within the lower-income levels. Rents will be adjusted to the family's income and size.

Rents in the complex will range from $361 to $681 monthly in the housing units. A family of eight with a yearly income of less than $27,250 would qualify for a five-bedroom unit and would pay the maximum monthly rental. A couple with an income of less than $16,500 would pay a monthly rent of $413 for a smaller apartment.

All of the future tenants--an estimated 200 people--will be screened to ensure that they are legal residents of the United States, have no criminal records, and meet other requirements of the housing program.

A county-hired management firm will have on-site managers to see that the rules are met and the property maintained. The county Housing Authority has requested a $500,000 contribution toward the project from the San Marcos city redevelopment agency. The remainder of the financing and operating costs would be met through state and federal grants and low-interest loans paid off by proceeds from the rentals.

San Marcos Councilman Mike Preston has read letters sent to council members protesting the project, and he is blunt in his rejection of their arguments, which he sees as largely stemming from the Not in My Back Yard syndrome.

"Part of it is racism. Part of it is NIMBYism. Part of it is ignorance," Preston said of the opponents' claims. "To turn our backs on it (the county proposal) would be a scar on the city of San Marcos."

Preston said that he would have to assure himself that the farm worker housing project would have proper security measures and would be an attractive addition to the neighborhood before he committed his affirmative vote. But he said he has few doubts that the county project will meet the city's standards.

Councilman Mark Loscher hasn't come to a conclusion on the farm worker project but said the city needs to take some steps to bring in more low-income housing.

"This city, like most others, is under tremendous pressures from the state and federal governments to provide higher percentages of low- and moderate-income housing, and the Legal Aid Society is suing us on just that issue," he said. "We need not only to provide our share of low-income housing but also to play catch-up to provide the deficit we have from the past."

Councilman F. H. (Corky) Smith has some questions he wants answered before he takes a stand on the county project.

"I want to know just how many farm workers we have in this city, and, if this is a regional thing, why other cities have turned it down," Smith said.

He would rather see the project built for low-income seniors, of which San Marcos has more than its share.

Smith envisions the area around Mission and Twin Oaks Valley roads as growing into "a real city" one of these days, and believes that the half-rural, half-urban area could develop into a student housing area, near enough to the new university and to Palomar Community College to serve both institutions as a student-housing complex.

Berkoff sees the future of the neighborhood in even more glowing terms. He sees the mishmash of older homes and newer apartments blossoming into a kind of Westwood Village serving Cal State San Marcos, as Westwood serves UCLA.

"They must not let this area become a ghetto. It's on the verge of that now," Berkoff said.

"I've been talking to city officials," Berkoff said, "and the crime rate in the area has quadrupled. Shootings into windows, graffiti. It is getting a run-down look and the city codes are not being honored. Soon new development will not want to come here."

Malone said that the farm worker housing project site was chosen by the county, the only one of 50 sites ranging from Oceanside to Fallbrook to Borrego Springs that was not rejected because of cost or location. A federal requirement is that the project be in an urban area, where schools and other urban services are available, he said.

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