One Foot in the Door

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Times Staff Writer

The fledgling housing project consists of only 24 units, a drop in the bucket when it comes to meeting Ventura County’s farm worker housing needs.

But the apartment complex emerging from an empty lot in downtown Oxnard is as big on symbolism as it is innovative in approach to sheltering those squeezed hardest by the county’s red-hot housing market.

The $5.9-million project, which officially broke ground last week, represents the first large-scale farm worker housing built in the county in a decade.


Rental assistance will ensure that no family pays more than 30% of its income toward rent. Set to open by year’s end, the complex will feature an innovative effort to explore the link between housing quality and farm worker health, providing medical assistance and other services to more than 100 residents.

“It’s a cutting-edge idea,” said Jesse Ornelas, senior project manager for Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., the nonprofit agency spearheading the project.

“The agricultural work force has been invisible in a lot of ways, but that’s changing,” Ornelas added. “I think people are realizing that if Ventura County is going to maintain a viable agricultural economy, we’re going to have to deal with the housing needs of the work force in that economy.”

And possibly as much as any county in California, Ventura County is doing that.

With skyrocketing housing prices and soaring rents making it tougher than ever for farm workers to find places to live, a coalition of growers, housing advocates and elected leaders is scrambling to shelter those who supply the muscle for the county’s $1-billion farm industry.

Three other projects are in the pipeline, ranging from a 24-unit rental project in Santa Paula to a mix of homes and apartments for farm workers at a former slum housing site in south Oxnard.

County officials last summer completed a survey to determine the housing needs of workers, and in May the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to loosen zoning codes to spur housing construction for them.


“There’s no question that Ventura County is a real hot spot,” said Jeff Deiss, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s multifamily housing program in California. “I don’t think there is any [county] I can point to that has more projects going.”

The attention comes after years of arm-twisting by affordable-housing advocates -- lawsuits by legal aid attorneys over the years have prompted commitments to farm worker housing.

The newfound focus also is triggered by a broader concern over housing for all segments of the workforce as the housing market reaches a fever pitch

But largely the interest has been spurred by a growing belief that in order to keep farmers in business -- which voters have said they want to do through the adoption of farmland preservation measures -- steps must be taken to house those who work the harvest.

There are now task forces dedicated to the problem and talk of creating land trusts to raise money for property on which farm worker housing can be built.

“I think our focus now is on farm labor housing, and two or three years ago that wasn’t the case,” said county Supervisor John Flynn, who has a goal of building 500 housing units for farm workers in five years. “The cooperation is there like never before.”


While much progress has been made, farm worker advocates warn there is still plenty to be done.

The county’s housing survey revealed that many farm workers are living in dwellings that are overcrowded and lack hot water, toilets and adequate heating. In addition, field laborers and their families are forced to double and triple up to pay the rent.

The problem is especially evident this time of year, when laborers flock to work in the county’s booming strawberry harvest. At peak season, officials put the work force at 35,000 laborers. The county survey found that 70% of respondents qualified as extremely low-income under federal guidelines.

Eleazar and Estella Gutierrez consider themselves lucky. The strawberry pickers pay $1,400 a month to rent a three-bedroom house in central Oxnard. Together they earn about $1,000 a month and have brought some of their adult children to live with them to make ends meet.

Eight people live in their modest rental home. Still, the couple know that others have it much worse, working alongside laborers who stack up 10 to 15 deep per house because it is the only way they can pay the rent.

“Living alone you just can’t make it,” said Estella Gutierrez, 58, who has worked the county’s harvest for decades. “The situation is very bad for farm workers and has gotten worse year after year.”


The Gutierrezes filed suit against Oxnard in 1999, arguing that a proposed luxury development failed to provide housing for poor people as required by the city’s housing plan.

Settlement of that lawsuit in 2000 paved the way for the rental project that broke ground last week and for construction of a 54-unit low-income project in north Oxnard where at least 27 units will be set aside for farm worker families.

Poverty law attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz, who has been at the center of several of the legal battles, said community attitudes are changing and the political will is now in place in some jurisdictions to meet a portion of the housing demand.

“It’s like we have a green light now and we’ve never had that before,” Macri-Ortiz said.

That’s not to say it is always easy.

Macri-Ortiz has a lawsuit pending against Camarillo, asking that a development be halted because the city did not require homes for people with extremely low incomes. Two farm workers are plaintiffs in that case.

A similar suit has been filed against Fillmore on behalf of a farm worker in that city.

The lawsuit challenges approval of a 750-home development, alleging that the project does not require housing for poor residents and that the city’s General Plan did not have a valid housing element in place when the development was approved.

Earlier this year, Fillmore did receive approval for its housing element.

As a result, the City Council on Tuesday is set to consider creation of an ordinance that would require a percentage of low- and moderate-income housing be provided in all new residential developments.


Housing advocates across the state say there is increasing activity on the farm worker housing front, fueled by an infusion of cash in recent years into California’s primary farm worker housing grant program.

Established in 1977, the farm worker housing fund only was receiving $1 million to $2 million a year up until 1999. But more than $55 million has flowed into the fund since fiscal year 1999-2000.

And a record $55 million is expected to be allocated this year, thanks to passage in November of a $2.1-billion housing bond by California voters. The measure earmarked $200 million for farm worker housing.

“We have never seen this level of resources invested in California or any other state,” said Judy Nevis, chief deputy director of the state housing department. “Because farm workers represent such an important segment of our economy, obviously there is a need to make sure they are adequately housed.”

That need has become especially clear in Ventura County’s agricultural economy, the 10th largest in the state.

While the county’s housing crunch has been tough on workers in all sectors, it has been especially hard on farm workers, some of whom earn as little as $8,000 a year.


One policy group reported recently that farm worker housing is in such dwindling supply that it threatens the stability of the county’s oldest and most prominent industry.

“I think as a general rule we are way behind the curve in addressing the issue,” said farm industry attorney Rob Roy, who has served on two of the farm worker housing committees. “It’s not a situation that is going to be resolved overnight. But I think we have taken great steps forward to guarantee the future viability of agriculture, and part of that is finding affordable housing for farm workers.”

That is why there was such a celebration during last week’s groundbreaking in downtown Oxnard for the Meta Street Apartments, which will be the city’s first farm worker rental project.

The project was made possible through a combination of federal, state and local funds. It will be served by Clinicas del Camino Real health clinic less than a block away, and will offer English as a second language instruction, citizenship classes and on-site legal aid through the Superior Court’s self-help legal center.

“We spend so much time talking about doing it ... but you guys are getting it done,” the Agriculture Department’s Deiss told the gathering. “What’s happening in Ventura County, what’s happening in Oxnard, is a shining light for the rest of the state.”