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Model Suburb Is Nightmare for Residents

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At times, raw sewage leaks from an overcrowded house down the street. Workers guzzle beer at night and toss the empty bottles on the ground. A scrap heap of car parts is piled up next door.

Retired toolmaker Paul Cancaro got so fed up with neighbors that he built a fence around the backyard of his Royal Oaks Drive home. The 76-year-old says at least now he can sit outside and not have to watch his neighborhood crumble around him.

“This neighborhood has gone to hell,” Cancaro said. “I just got sick of it. Two houses from me, there’s 20 to 30 people. If I sell this place, what can I get?”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

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City leaders long ago declared this downtown district of aging bungalows in need of revitalization, naming it “the model neighborhood.”

In 1987, they changed zoning laws to encourage developers to raze run-down houses and build apartment complexes. City workers repaved roads, built a sound wall near the Ventura Freeway and planted trees and grass near busy Hampshire Road.

Residents of the neighborhood--an oak-studded stretch of about 15 acres bounded by Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Hampshire Road, the Ventura Freeway and Auto Mall Drive--are worried that an aging part of town born of the post-World War II housing boom has been overtaken by urbanization.

A few high-profile incidents have magnified their concerns.

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Crime on the Rise in Neighborhood

Last winter, a serial rapist terrorized neighborhood women. Two months ago, city inspectors uncovered a shantytown where about 50 immigrant workers had crammed into deteriorating houses, shacks and sheds. The case has been described as perhaps the worst instance of overcrowding this wealthy suburb has ever seen.

In April, a teller was shot and killed at a bank a few blocks from the neighborhood. Although some residents say that type of random violence can happen anywhere, others are afraid to leave their homes after sundown.

According to Thousand Oaks sheriff’s deputies, 98 serious crimes were committed in the neighborhood in 1996--a 40% increase from the previous year. Most of that can be attributed to a surge in property crimes--auto, petty and grand theft. In 1995, there were 16 such crimes; there were 45 last year.

Sgt. Harold Humphries said that when the Sheriff’s Department’s new community policing motor home is introduced this summer, officers will spend plenty of time in the troubled neighborhood.

“With the renters in the area, for the most part, they’re just trying to make it through the day, to survive,” Humphries said. “We’re trying to develop that stake in the community.”

Aggravating community concerns are plans for an 11-unit apartment complex for struggling families being built by affordable housing group Many Mansions.

Activists against illegal immigrants this month accused Many Mansions and the city of fostering a safe haven for undocumented workers, junkies and criminals with the project dubbed Community House. They launched a petition drive against the housing group.

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City officials and social activists called the charges ridiculous. They said Community House is intended only for Conejo Valley families who need a low-cost place to stay while trying to become financially independent. Protests against Community House have dragged prejudice into the neighborhood, said Otto Stoll, co-chairman of the affordable housing group. “You have a community in which people do co-exist,” Stoll said. “It’s a place where Caucasians and Hispanics live side-by-side. . . . To try to inject some element of class and ethnicity within the neighborhood is wrong.”

Poverty and Falling Values

The area is one of the poorest in Thousand Oaks.

The 1990 census shows 13.3% of residents of the downtown district encompassing the neighborhood were living in poverty. In the city as a whole, 4.2% of the population was below the poverty line.

The median household income in the district was $34,184, compared with $56,856 citywide. The median value for an owner-occupied home in the district was $177,600, compared with $297,000 for the city.

Some argue the recent string of troubles was inevitable, the culmination of years of lip service from city officials. They say the city, despite its ambitious revitalization plan, turned its back on residents who complained again and again that overcrowding was out of control.

“This was the sorriest mistake I ever made,” said Chris Buckett, referring to the condominium she bought in the neighborhood a few years ago. Buckett bought the condo for $160,000 but says she would be lucky to get more than $100,000 for it now. City leaders often point to The Groves, where Buckett lives, as proof that the model neighborhood plan has spurred new development.

Buckett, on the other hand, says the city’s neglect has ruined her quality of life and caused condo prices to plummet.

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She called her neighborhood “a nightmare.”

A place without street lights and sidewalks. A place where crooks cruise by at night looking for open garage doors. A place where many sagging homes, not just the ones targeted by city inspectors this spring, are packed with impoverished families who crowd together to split the rent. A place where poor people sneak into Buckett’s condominium complex to use showers near the pool.

Buckett said it is time for the city to take responsibility for the so-called model neighborhood. But she doubts things will get better. “There’s something wrong with the process here,” she said. “The commitment is lacking.”

Officials Cite Improvements

Local officials, however, say critics of the model neighborhood plan have short memories.

Ventura County Supervisor Frank Schillo, a Thousand Oaks city councilman when the neighborhood revitalization plan was crafted, said things were much worse a few years ago. Back then, he said, developers had no incentive to knock down decaying houses and build over them.

“The area was run down,” Schillo said. “It was an eyesore.”

Olav Hassel, the city’s housing services director, points to the numerous small apartment buildings that have cropped up among the aging one-story homes as proof the revitalization plan has worked. The idea, he said, was to provide developers with incentives to build such projects.

The plan included rezoning the area--originally designated for single-family homes--to allow 15 residential units per acre. Officials also speeded up the permit process for apartment builders and relaxed many of the city’s development regulations. For instance, the number of parking spaces required at apartment complexes lots was reduced.

The model neighborhood, Hassel said, is a proven example of what cities can do to encourage private investment in troubled areas. “The city doesn’t own the land,” Hassel said. “We just can’t go in there and clean it out on the spot. We have to defer to private property owners.”

Retired beautician Lorene Turek said the neighborhood shows signs of a comeback.

Several families have fixed up their houses and front lawns. Turek proudly shows off her backyard flower garden of roses, carnations and geraniums. She lists some of the neighborhood’s quirks--like the wild peacock that residents say is a remnant of Jungleland, a wild animal park that closed years ago.

City Councilman Andy Fox said the downtown neighborhood still has plenty of charm, with its oak-lined streets and some of the oldest restaurants and shops in town. “You can’t point to the bank robbery and say that’s indicative of the problems in the area,” Fox said.

Fox said officials have responded swiftly to this spring’s shantytown discovery, in which the ramshackle village was declared unsafe and about half its inhabitants were ordered to move.

In the wake of the ghetto’s discovery, City Council members authorized the creation of a tough anti-slumlord ordinance that would heap fines on slum owners and speed court action against them. Charities and city officials have been working together to find better homes for slum dwellers.

Housing officials say that despite recent events the model neighborhood has a bright future.

“I think gradually you will see improvement,” Hassel said. “Lot by lot.”

Days of Quiet Lifestyle Over

These days, such optimism seems far more widespread in City Hall than on dusty byways like Los Robles Road.

Retired construction worker Jack Byrd bought a home on that street nearly 50 years ago, and says he has lived through the steady decline of a once proud country neighborhood.

The 67-year-old Byrd said many of the city’s policies have made things worse.

For instance, he said, parking has become a problem as more and more people have moved in. And signs of blight--abandoned shopping carts, litter and debris--line the neighborhood’s roads. He sometimes hears police helicopters buzzing overhead, such as one day this spring when a worker was pistol-whipped outside a nearby bank.

But Byrd said city officials should not be blamed for all the problems. Byrd was a construction worker on the Ventura Freeway, and said the tide of urbanization was so strong that it was just a matter of time before big-city problems came to his neighborhood.

“We’re used to country living. That’s the way we like it,” he said. “But this has turned into a city. And you can bitch like hell, but there’s nothing you can do. It’s happened in Ventura. It’s happened in Oxnard. And I think it’s going to get worse, not better.”

Byrd’s wife, Sally, said she and her husband support the complex that is being built for struggling families. She doesn’t believe it will fuel crime and attract illegal immigrants.

“It’s already come to that,” she said. “People need a place to live.”

A few houses down, 27-year-old contractor Mike Ward said the Community House has forced him to reconsider plans to buy the bungalow that his family rents for $1,000 a month.

Ward knows social workers have good intentions, with their plans to give single mothers and their children a chance to get back on their feet. But he fears that Community House could become a magnet for troublemakers.

“They can’t even afford rent to afford their own housing,” said Ward, the father of two young boys. “Single moms don’t become single moms because nature made them that way. They’ve had guys hanging around them.”

The ramshackle houses across the street, packed with poor immigrant families, also give Ward cause to rethink his home buying plans. Ward says he has never felt threatened by the people who live there, and they seem to be hard workers. But the other side of the street just keeps getting shabbier, he said.

“It’s totally trash,” Ward said.

David Lozada, who lived in the shantytown uncovered by inspectors this April, said relations between whites and Latinos have gotten worse in recent weeks. Lozada, a 23-year-old assistant manager at Burger King, said many of the worst stereotypes about Latinos were played out at the run-down village.

The young men drank a lot after work and sometimes got into fistfights in the street. Some even dealt drugs, he said.

In recent months, neighborly hellos and waves have become less frequent. After the bank slaying, Lozada told his wife not to go outside without him.

“I can understand why people are afraid,” Lozada said. “I’d like to move to another place. . . . This is a spot in Thousand Oaks I don’t like.”

Solutions Offered

Local history buff Tina Carlson suggests that city officials consider buying some of the neighborhood’s older homes and converting them into administrative offices. That would be better than razing them, said Carlson, who helped save parts of an aging brick house that was taken down to make way for Community House.

“My concern is that government is taking things away that keep us in touch with our history,” Carlson said. “If we have symbols like a beautiful old house built by a pioneer, we’ll care about what happened to our community.”

Councilwoman Linda Parks said that the city should review the model neighborhood plan and perhaps reconsider the increase in density. “The idea was to replace the old with the high-density new,” Parks said. “If we can upscale the neighborhood, not upsize it, that’s where we should put our efforts.”

But some say the city’s recent moves to correct the overcrowding problem have come too late.

Developer Arlen Wood, who has built several small apartment units in the model neighborhood, said his complaints about overcrowding were ignored. When Many Mansions was looking for sites for Community House, he sold his Los Robles Road property to them. Wood said he is done building in Thousand Oaks.

“Why would I build another apartment with [slums] across the street?” he asks. “I would never build another unit in Thousand Oaks.”

At the house owned by retired toolmaker Cancaro, some home improvements create a sense of optimism. He refinished his floors, put in a new laundry room and built an outdoor deck.

Cancaro has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and hopes things will turn around.

“We’ll see what happens in the next few years,” he said. “If it gets any worse, I’ll split.”


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