Crowded Living in California's Open Spaces

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This agricultural outpost in the lower San Joaquin Valley has no city hall, no municipal police force, no street lights and no benches in the park for young lovers on hot summer nights.

One thing it does have in surplus is people. Per household, this dusty spot on the map 40 miles northwest of Bakersfield is the most crowded community in California. An average of 5.6 people live in every tumbledown bungalow and rusting mobile home in town.

Of course, that's just an average. "There's three families in there," said Rafaela Tijerina, pointing at a pink-and-white double-wide fronted by a bare dirt lot. "Fifteen people."

Tijerina is at the wheel of her minivan. Outside, a shriveled community of about 2,000 unfolds along a series of treeless, unpaved streets plopped down in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the world. A grass-roots activist who has made this castaway place home for most of her 60 years, she points at a neat little house with a white picket fence around one of the few green lawns. "There's 20 people in there," she said. "In summer, it's worse."

What makes Lost Hills significant is not just that it is crowded, or that the feisty Tijerina is fighting for its future, but that the demographic bomb detonating here is exploding all over rural California. Though most people might imagine teeming urban centers such as southeast Los Angeles and San Francisco's Chinatown when they think of overcrowding, an analysis of the 2000 Census shows that the most crowded places more often are desolate little towns like this one.

Whether it's Pajaro near Salinas, Greenfield south of Monterey, Mecca east of Palm Springs or Richgrove south of Fresno, these communities share a common plight: They are packed, poor and populated by Latino farm workers, many of them first-generation immigrants grasping at the bottom rung of California's economic ladder.

"If people knew about this they'd be shocked," said Mark Brown, an official with California Rural Legal Assistance, an advocacy group for farm workers.

Everyone who's been paying attention knows there's a housing crisis throughout California. But in these far-flung farm communities, some of which--like Lost Hills--are not even incorporated, the crisis is more immediate. Not only is there a lack of housing, but the existing homes--even crumbling, ticky-tack shacks that in past generations sheltered a single family--are unaffordable unless people double and triple up.

"You can find pockets throughout the state," said Brown. "These are Third World conditions."

According to experts, what's driving this rural population boom is a combination of factors, from a revolution in farming practices to a perception by poor immigrants that compared with gang- and drug-infested inner-city neighborhoods, even end-of-the-road farm hamlets are preferable. Another cause is the closure of private labor camps because of tougher enforcement of housing codes. The goal was to make things better, but the crackdown has forced laborers from overcrowded camps into overcrowded towns.

Not all the news is bad. The infusion of Latino immigrants has helped save some communities that were on their way to extinction.

"People tend to see these places as dead-end labor camps," said Juan-Vicente Palerm, a UC Santa Barbara professor who has studied the changes occurring in rural California. "But these are real places. You see immigrants becoming merchants and being elected to the city councils. There's a revolution going on in rural California."

Crowding Grows in Last Decade

But you also continue to see too many people trying to crowd themselves into too small an area. Crowding in California doubled between 1980 and 1990, said Brown, due in part to passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized millions of migrants and encouraged them to settle. Census figures show that crowding in rural areas continued to rise in the last decade, even as the government increased border surveillance.

Across the Pajaro River from Watsonville, the Monterey County community of Pajaro is 15% more dense than in 1990.

Schools Supt. John Casey said half his students speak limited English. Many families are in need: The district established a dental-care program after many students showed up for class with abscessed teeth.

Down the road in Greenfield, the county has been trying to address the problem by building more housing. They still can't keep up, said Randy Anstein, the city manager.

"We could increase the housing stock two or three times and you'd still have people in garages," he said.

Greenfield is a city of about 13,000 just off U.S. 101. Many other crowded communities straddle important transportation routes. Lost Hills is three miles west of Interstate 5.

This reflects a changing labor market, as well as an evolution of farming practices. The era of the migrant farm worker hauling his family around in a rattling station wagon is ending. Instead of following the crops up and down the state, workers settle in one area and travel from farm to farm in the region.

What makes this possible is an extension of the growing season, as well as a shift in agricultural production to specialty crops, so that several are being raised in the same area and mature at different times.

Around Greenfield, said Anstein, 89 row crops are harvested. People living in Lost Hills can pick pistachios, almonds, roses and cotton. "Some of them travel to work 40 to 60 miles away," said Eustolia Diaz of the Lost Hills Collaborative, a social agency in town.

While this was happening, private labor camps were being shut down. "State regulations became so strict," said Palerm, "that a lot of farmers bulldozed the housing."

But why Lost Hills, or Pajaro, or Mecca, or Thermal, or any of the other little burgs? They are short on services--the nearest law enforcement for Lost Hills is the Kern County sheriff's station 20 miles away in Buttonwillow--and far from any of the things a population center can provide.

The answer is simple. Places like Lost Hills are the cheapest to live in. Compared with Lost Hills, even Wasco is a step up.

Alex Rodriguez, 58, is an example. He used to live in Wasco, population 21,000, but came to Lost Hills to be near a daughter. Then his wife got sick. Now, they live in a ragged shack and he rides a bicycle to work at a Days Inn off I-5.

"I've hit bottom," he said. He hastened to point out that unlike his neighbors born in Mexico, he's lived all his life in the United States and is used to a better standard of living.

1-Bedroom Trailer Costs $300 a Month

A typical one-bedroom trailer home in Lost Hills rents for about $300, a three-bedroom for up to $430. The housing in town would brighten up considerably if some landscaping were added, but Tijerina said water costs too much, so most trailers squat in the dust.

This and other perceived injustices energize this small, intense woman who speaks halting English. But there's no mistaking her message: Lost Hills isn't getting a fair shake. Her determination to change the situation is partly a result of her nature and partly because she grew up in town. Let others move to Wasco; she'll stand up for Lost Hills.

"She's a fighter," said an admiring county official who has dealt with Tijerina.

On a recent afternoon, she led the way to the green clapboard house where Maria Canchola, 41, lives with her family and a boarder who sleeps on the couch. Masking tape covered holes in the walls, and the heater didn't work.

Canchola said she moved in two months ago. "The other place was worse," she said. Its rent was too high, and they had to share it with two other families.

Compared with most, Rosa Ibel, 21, from Guerrero, Mexico, is lucky. Her husband has steady work, and their old GM sedan still runs. They are even saving a bit.

"I don't like it, but what else can I do?" she said in Spanish.

In the past, young families like hers would have looked forward to moving to the city, either Fresno or Los Angeles. But dishwashing and similar jobs are the only work available in metropolitan areas to unskilled laborers. That work doesn't pay any better than farm work. And with gangs in control of many poor neighborhoods in big cities, family people like these no longer see urban life as superior.

"At least here we know people," Ibel said.

Besides, no one at the bottom of the wage scale can afford to go out to eat or see a movie, so there is little difference between the invisible lives they lead in Lost Hills and the invisible, dangerous lives they would lead in North Hills or East Los Angeles.

"I can't take full responsibility for the condition [Lost Hills] is in," said Ken Peterson, the Kern County supervisor whose district includes the community. He said he's been trying to get more affordable housing there, but agrees that some people in Lost Hills couldn't afford even that.

As for the lack of roads and other infrastructure, he agreed that it is a serious problem. "Everywhere else in the county we require developers to put in roads," he said. "But these people are so poor they can't afford streets."

He said he was hesitant to make an exception to the rules for Lost Hills because "if I do it somewhere, I'll have to do it everywhere."

But Lost Hills has a secret weapon in Tijerina. Well, maybe not so secret. She remembers the time when even a farm worker's salary was enough to pay the rent.

She's angry at what she sees happening around her, and she doesn't shy away from criticizing officials she thinks ought to be doing something. It's not fair, she says, considering that this community sits among some of the most valuable land in the nation. Oil was discovered here in 1910, and it's still being pumped. And big corporate farms spread from horizon to horizon.

But Tijerina is living proof that, although it's not easily accessible, there is an onramp from Lost Hills to the American dream: Using their savings and government loan programs, she and her husband, Blas, just purchased a 300-acre ranch.

"I used to work on this land picking. Now I own it," she said. "We made the American dream come true. Now I want it for everybody."

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California's Most Crowded Places

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Times staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this report.

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