Rodney Fernandez dies at 68; fought for affordable housing

Rodney Fernandez, an advocate who fought for affordable housing in Ventura County and whose nonprofit agency has developed more than 1,700 homes, died Wednesday at his residence in Santa Paula. He was 68.

He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his wife, Melinda, said.

Fernandez founded the Ventura-based Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. in 1981 and retired in 2012.

The agency grew out of a lengthy confrontation in the 1970s between farmworkers who lived at a rundown labor camp in Saticoy and the growers who wanted to raze their cramped homes for development.

Amid labor tensions, the conflict peaked with a 1974 standoff between a human chain of families and a bulldozer operator getting ready to level several condemned homes.


But the saga’s more astonishing moment came quietly in 1976: With Fernandez advising them, 82 farmworker families pitched in and bought their deteriorating cottages from the Saticoy Lemon Assn.

It was perhaps the first time that U.S. farmworkers had purchased the camp they lived in, according to Jesse Ornelas, a longtime colleague of Fernandez’s who is Cabrillo’s director of real estate assets and operations.

Fernandez also aided the new owners in setting up a tile shop and a cabinet factory, and acquiring the carpentry and plumbing skills needed to rehabilitate their long-neglected homes.

“Rodney was a visionary,” Ornelas said. “We were retooling the farm workers with different employment opportunities and generating revenue at the same time.”

The homegrown shops have long been shuttered and the village has had its share of urban problems, but the project gave Fernandez “a new trajectory and a lifelong commitment,” Ornelas said.

The son of immigrants from Mexico, Fernandez was born in Gallup, N.M., on July 28, 1945. As a child, he was so asthmatic that doctors urged his family to seek a healthier climate. When he was 4, his parents chose Los Angeles.

Graduating from Cal State Los Angeles in 1968, he worked five years for a city redevelopment agency in Los Angeles before taking a job as head of Ventura County’s Commission on Human Concerns and Community Development. In 1978, he went to work for the Cabrillo Improvement Assn., the forerunner of the economic development group he started three years later.

After sometimes contentious negotiations with local governments, Fernandez built projects throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Some received honors from the American Institute of Architects , the American Planning Assn. and other professional groups.

“He never gave up,” said Lynn L. Jacobs, who served as director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development from 2006 to 2011. “He did the hard work to find underutilized properties and to find financing where no one else could.”

In addition to his wife, Melinda, he is survived by a brother, David.