Farm Labor Housing Gets Seed Money

Times Staff Writer

A campaign to build farm-worker housing in Ventura County got a $250,000 boost Monday.

Washington Mutual bank announced it will donate the money to a fund administered by the Ventura County Community Foundation. Money generated by the fund will provide start-up costs to private developers interested in building homes for agricultural workers, said Antonio Manning, vice president of the Washington-based bank's corporate-giving program.

As California's 10th-largest agricultural region, Ventura County was a good place to make the donation, Manning said. Over the years, Washington Mutual has donated millions of dollars to nonprofit groups promoting low-cost housing and teacher-training programs, he said.

In Washington state, one of its charitable priorities is helping private developers build low-cost housing, Manning said.

"We are beginning to spread our tentacles here in California," Manning said. "We want to focus on Ventura County right now. But we will definitely be looking for other areas to make grants."

Manning said the donation is not connected to the Ventura County Board of Supervisor's 4-1 vote in 2002 to approve the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch development near Calabasas. Washington Mutual, which inherited the project in a merger, was under pressure to cancel the development and sell the property to the public as parkland.

Supervisor John Flynn, who had been considered a swing vote on the controversial development, voted in favor of it, after winning an amendment that Washington Mutual would "consider" ways to help the county build housing for its many farm workers.

In early October, Washington Mutual bowed to pressure and sold the land to the state as parkland for $150 million.

"This is not a quid pro quo," Manning said. "We see it as a logical extension of the work we have been doing in Washington state and around the nation."

After years of stagnation, the drive to build more housing for farm laborers appears to be picking up. At least three projects are underway, and county supervisors in May voted unanimously to loosen zoning codes to encourage more development.

Flynn, long a champion of farm-worker causes, estimated that the county needs to add about 500 units to keep up with demand. Flynn said the donation could spur other businesses to give, helping the community foundation meet an unofficial goal of endowing the housing fund with $1 million.

"It's just exactly what we need," the Oxnard supervisor said. "Ventura County Community Foundation is involved because private companies don't usually like to give money to government. So this is a perfect set-up."

Foundation administrators will meet with a number of community leaders to decide on goals and a process for awarding grants, said Hugh Ralston, president of the community group.

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