Home Prices Make CSUCI a Hard Sell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After eight scouting trips and a nasty landlord snub, professor Lillian Castaneda gave up hope of finding a house near her job at the new Cal State campus in Ventura County.

Instead, she rented a Silver Lake duplex and will make a 60-mile, two-hour commute each way by train to Cal State Channel Islands near Camarillo. The Harvard-educated Castaneda, 48, says she was shocked to discover just how expensive--and scarce--housing has become in Ventura County.

University recruiters say spiraling real estate prices hampered their ability to lure a first group of educators, whose salaries range between $71,000 and $92,000.

"It was an issue brought up by several candidates," said university President Richard Rush. "They were intimidated by prospective prices, especially if they were coming from other states."

Castaneda is no stranger to California real estate. For years, she rented a duplex in northern San Diego County while teaching multicultural education at the Cal State San Marcos.

But that two-bedroom beach home cost her $900 a month and comparable housing in Ventura County hovers around $1,800. Meanwhile, her new Silver Lake rental goes for $1,095 a month.

"It's a beautiful community," she said after two months of searching in Ventura County. "But I won't live in a matchbox and pay all that money."

For Castaneda and 12 other professors hired as the nucleus of the Channel Islands faculty, finding a house they can afford has become the first challenge in getting the new university off the ground.

Ventura County's median home price is $273,000--the second highest in Southern California. And rentals are so hard to find that landlords can pick and choose tenants.

Faculty housing will be built in a canyon in the rolling hills of the 630-acre campus, but it won't be ready until the school opens for classes in fall 2002. Even then, dwellings will be sold only slightly below steep local market prices.

That leaves professors to battle for housing on their own. Even Rush, who has spent several weeks searching for a large home, has not been spared.

"I want to live in the city of Camarillo to be closer to the university," said the new president, who left a custom-built home on two acres in Minnesota. "But I haven't yet been able to find a house that suits my needs."

Campus Housing Not Yet Ready

The faculty's dilemma reflects a booming real estate market that has pushed home prices to record levels, and added about $200 a month to the cost of typical rentals in the last year alone.

The situation resembles the predicament faced by moderately paid local professionals such as nurses, teachers and police officers in the late 1980s, when a previous boom pushed housing prices out of reach for many in the middle class. In Simi Valley, young police officers found themselves commuting from the Antelope Valley.

Faculty at Cal State campuses in San Francisco, San Jose and Orange County have been facing the same problem for years, university officials say. Cal State has responded with several initiatives, such as building campus housing for professors and arranging discounts on home loans.

Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed also proposed a $5-million housing assistance program that would be used to help faculty purchase homes in the system's most expensive campus locales. But the funding request has been taken out of the state's 2001-02 budget, said Cal State spokesman Ken Swisher.

Meanwhile, he said, state university officials have spent more than a year trying to craft an agreement with a bank to offer faculty short-term funding and low-interest rates in return for being allowed to market banking products to the system's 40,000 employees.

That effort has so far been fruitless, Swisher said. The best hope for Ventura County's faculty, he said, is a plan to build faculty housing at the Channel Islands campus.

A mini-city of 900 houses will be anchored by a town square and dotted with bicycle paths, parks and pools. Some of the homes will be sold to the public to help finance the university's growth.

A range of rentals, townhomes and detached single-family dwellings will be set aside for faculty, said George Dutra, associate vice president in charge of campus development.

A first phase of 208 units will be ready next fall. Home prices will range between $215,000 and $275,000--about 20% below market value, according to Dutra.

Rental rates have not yet been set, but will be "very reasonable" for professors and other campus staff, he said. Faculty and staff can also qualify for 100% financing.

Dutra predicted the ready-made community will be a great recruiting tool once it's established.

Some faculty, however, are expressing reservations about living in an insulated campus setting. The Channel Islands campus is on an agricultural plain three miles from Camarillo, the closest city.

Frank Barajas, 36, hired to teach history, said he briefly considered commuting from his current home in Cypress while waiting for faculty housing to be built. But he reconsidered after talking with family and friends.

"I think it's important to live out in the community," said Barajas, who grew up in Oxnard and still has family there. "It makes us more connected to the people here."

The north Oxnard home he purchased last week was in "the high 300s," Barajas said. He and his wife, a medical clerk, were able to swing it because of the equity they have built over the past seven years in their Cypress property.

"We were so discouraged early on," Barajas said. "But I felt it would only be more difficult in a year. And we wanted to take advantage of the low interest rates."

Castaneda said she began scouring Ventura County neighborhoods a couple of months ago. She initially focused her search in beach communities, but turned to other areas after the prices there scared her away.

After weeks of searching, she thought she had closed in on an acceptable compromise--the sprawling first floor of a Ventura hillside home being rented out.

The landlord initially seemed enthusiastic about her application, Castaneda said. Then, without explanation, she couldn't get him to return her calls. That's when she decided to check out the Silver Lake home recommended by a colleague.

"I made every effort to find something [in Ventura County]," she said. "It just didn't work out for me."

Joan Karp, 54, a special education professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said she and her husband have already decided to rent an apartment while they consider options.

This week, they will be leave their four-bedroom rural home studded with pine trees and attempt to find suitable quarters. "I can walk five minutes and see waterfalls, deer and black bear," said Karp. "It's going to be a big change."

Karp knows that a comparable home will cost two to three times as much. But the sacrifice is worth it, she said, because of the challenge of the job ahead.

"To start a new university is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

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