VC Star, published July 6, 2017; Tyler Hersko , Tyler.Hersko@vcstar.com, 805-437-0312
For Leticia Chavez, a Ventura resident and mother of two, affordable housing is not a controversial political issue, but an important factor in providing a safe environment for her family and an opportunity to be a contributing member of society.
“I used to live in a garage with my family,” Chavez, 49, said. “Now, instead of sleeping on a couch, each of my daughters has their own room and I can provide a safer, better standard of living for my family. It’s a priority to have dignified, safe housing for our community.”
Chavez is one of approximately 248 tenants in Ventura’s Azahar Place Apartments, a complex that dedicates 60 of its housing units to low-income families and farmworkers. The property, managed by Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation, which advocates for and provides affordable housing initiatives, allows individuals such as Chavez to raise their families in a clean and affordable community. Chavez has lived in the Azahar Place Apartments since it opened five years ago and noted that without the property’s affordable rent, her family would be forced to live in substandard and unsafe housing such as garages.
Although similar affordable housing complexes exist throughout the region, demand for such properties far outstrips what’s currently available in Ventura County. Median home prices in Ventura County are consistently above $500,000 — among the highest in Southern California — and rising housing costs have far outpaced average wage growth. Housing is considered affordable if occupants are paying no more than 30 percent of their income for gross housing costs, including utilities, according to information on the Department of Housing and Urban Development website.
The county’s median home price was $535,000 in 2016, while the median wage during that period was $52,330, according to data from the Ventura County Civic Alliance’s 2017 State of the Region Report and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, respectively. Median monthly housing and rental costs require county residents making an average salary to spend well beyond 30 percent of their income on housing. As a result, an increasing number of Ventura County residents are being priced out of their own communities, which is an issue that is approaching breaking point, said Margarita de Escontrias, CEO of the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation.
“We have 1,120 units of affordable housing and have close to 6,000 people on our waiting list for units,” de Escontrias said. “There’s no place for farmworkers to call home in our county, so they are electing not to work here, which is a tremendous loss of resources for Ventura County. Agriculture is a large part of our county and we will, unfortunately, lose potential farmworkers if we cannot provide housing for these workers.”
While Ventura County relies heavily on its agricultural workforce, the lack of affordable housing affects more than just Ventura County’s farmers. Affordable housing is one of the county’s longest-running and most pressing economic concerns, and the issue is closely related to job growth, employee and business retention and a variety of other key business factors.
As the county’s job and wage growth fail to match its growing housing costs, major employers may have no incentive to invest in the region, said Matthew Fienup, an economist and executive director at California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting. Due to the ongoing and increasingly drastic nature of the issue, Ventura County’s economy is beginning to noticeably suffer, Fienup said.
“The magnitude of the problem has gotten big enough that it is dragging down the economy,” Fienup said. “I would look at Amgen’s recent announcement that it is relocating 10 percent of its workforce and investing heavily in its new facility in Tampa, Florida. They listed affordable housing and the lack of skilled labor among their concerns and if you lack the former, it means that employers have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified staff.”
Amgen Inc., a Thousand Oaks-based biopharmaceutical company and one of the county’s largest employers, announced plans to reassign, relocate or lay off nearly 500 of its employees earlier this year as part of the company’s plan to open a new facility in Tampa.
That said, the issue of affordable housing and its relationship with the county’s job market extends beyond medical and scientific careers. Leisure and hospitality are among the few local job sectors that have seen noticeable growth in employment since the Great Recession, and their median annual wage of $20,176 is grossly insufficient when compared to the county’s median annual housing costs. Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries, another leading component of Ventura County’s economy, don’t fare much better at a $24,444 average annual salary, according to data from the 2017 State of the Region Report.
The problem is such that if Ventura County continues to move toward a retirement or otherwise affluent-only community, there will not be enough housing to support the service workers who maintain the restaurants and retail establishments, according to Rick Schroeder, president of Many Mansions, an organization that provides affordable housing to the region’s low-income residents.
“There’s going to be a huge increase in our elderly population that frankly fought against affordable housing years ago,” Schroeder said. “They’ll realize the benefit of affordable housing when they’re on a fixed income and won’t be able to afford big homes, and they will be the ones that will push for senior housing. The people who live here want to go to restaurants and use retail and to have the community that they want to live in. You need all sorts of people living here.”
Beyond job and economic problems, the lack of affordable housing is also a social issue, said Alex Castillas, a property portfolio supervisor at Cabrillo. He noted that the lack of affordable housing is an issue compounded by a general lack of rent control that forced farmers to live in substandard housing that presented safety and health issues.
“People are sometimes renting garages and tool sheds to live here,” Castillas said. “Our average farmworker family makes about $19,000 a year which is really unbalanced. Affordable housing creates opportunity and families with affordable housing can allow one parent to stay behind to take care of their kids, engage in academic activities and volunteer in our community.”
Most experts agree a lack of developable land is restricting the growth of affordable housing. Economists and affordable housing advocates alike argue that while initiatives such as Save Open-space & Agricultural Resources (SOAR) protect the county’s scenic landscape from overdevelopment, they place building restrictions on land that makes housing construction and other economic boosters difficult. Voters renewed SOAR, which prevents agricultural land from being rezoned for development without a vote, to 2050 in the November election.
For others, the issue isn't the amount of developable land that is available, but what it is used for. When land is developed in Ventura County, it is often used for large, luxurious properties as opposed to affordable housing units, said county Supervisor Steve Bennett, who is on the SOAR board of directors and is one of the architects of the original measure.
Bennett argued that even in Southern California counties without measures such as SOAR, developers often fail to build sufficient affordable housing.
“The other counties that don’t have SOAR don’t have affordable housing either,” Bennett said. “When Orange County paved over their ag land they were building big, high-end homes, not the high-density affordable units that you need to solve the affordable housing issue. Developers make more money off of the larger, sprawling units.”
Bennett also urged residents to consider SOAR's economic benefits. The measure ensures agriculture remains a profitable industry in Ventura County and by preserving farmland and keeping the quality of life high, SOAR helps attract higher-quality businesses, Bennett said. Like others, Bennett considered civic engagement a key to solving the affordable housing issue and added that residents would need to encourage their cities to support and enact more affordable housing initiatives.
Regardless, measures such as SOAR will remain in effect for years to come, and it’s crucial to dedicate what land remains developable to affordable housing initiatives, said Steve Dwyer, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Ventura County.
“The more you restrict land usage, the more you restrict the potential economic growth of the county and that’s why we have chosen to focus our energies on those pieces of property that are still available,” Dwyer said. “Every jurisdiction in Ventura County should be focused on securing land that is dedicated to the creation of affordable housing since land is the most constrained commodity in the equation. People can influence the change by advocating for the need of affordable housing.”
Dwyer stressed that activism was of paramount importance to expanding affordable housing in Ventura County. He said civic engagement has played a major role in Habitat for Humanity’s success — such as the recent completion of eight affordable homes in Santa Paula by over 3,000 volunteers — and that affordable housing initiatives thrive when supported by an active community.
Though land availability is one of the primary roadblocks to affordable housing, public perception is another issue. Parking and density complications are common concerns associated with expanding affordable housing, though longtime advocates such as Dwyer argue that affordable housing projects are designed to minimize such issues. Dwyer also noted that a lack of affordable housing would result in other issues such as increased traffic due to residents being required to commute to higher-paying jobs out of the county to pay rent.
In addition to supporting individual housing projects, experts urged residents to be more accepting of affordable housing on a city and county level and to actively encourage city officials and local politicians to enact affordable housing initiatives.
Most advocates expressed cautious optimism regarding the future of affordable housing. Influential community members have begun serious dialogues about the subject in the last year, according to Fienup, while Dwyer and de Escontrias considered the need for affordable housing to be at least generally supported. Still, not all experts had a positive outlook on Ventura County’s affordable housing situation.
For Barbara Macri-Ortiz, an Oxnard attorney and longtime affordable housing advocate, there’s little indication things will change for the better in the foreseeable future. While county leaders actively discuss affordable housing, they do precious little to actively deal with the issue, Macri-Ortiz said.
“The standard for affordability used to be that you pay 25 percent of your income on your housing and housing expenses such as utilities and maintenance,” Macri-Ortiz said. “It got to the point where nobody could meet that so it changed to 30 percent and now in some Section 8 programs they will allow the recipients to pay up to 40 percent of income on rent. After being an affordable housing advocate in this county for 27 years, I am not hopeful because we still hear the same arguments: Rather than fix a problem we try to change the definition to make us feel better but the reality is people pay 40 percent of their income or higher on rent.”
Though she didn’t share other experts’ positive outlook on affordable housing, Macri-Ortiz agreed that public engagement and support of affordable housing initiatives would be key to improving the situation. Instead of only going to city council meetings to complain, Macri-Ortiz encouraged residents to make their voices heard and support council members when they make difficult decisions in favor of affordable housing.
Political support will play a pivotal role in establishing more affordable housing in Ventura County, said Linda Braunschweiger, CEO of the Ventura County Housing Trust Fund, which works to fund housing for low to moderate-income families. She added that California was one of the few large states that lacked a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing at the state level and that advocating for affordable housing measures could help secure resources that would greatly benefit affordable housing developers.
Legislation making its way through the California Legislature could help address that.
On Thursday the Senate approved a bill that would add a new fee on some real estate transaction documents to raise money for affordable housing.
The bill, authored by Sen. Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, could raise between $200 and $300 million dollars a year from a $75 fee on documents like deeds and notices. The bill, which now heads to the Assembly, would cap fees at $225 per transaction.
Braunschweiger agreed with other experts that unless significant changes are made, Ventura County would increasingly become an affluent-only community.
Although California's housing element laws mandate that cities plan to accommodate set amounts of affordable housing properties, Braunschweiger noted that there's no statewide requirement to actually construct affordable housing and that actual development was up to a region's developers.
Still, Braunschweiger stressed that affordable housing is a universally beneficial concept that would allow the county to support public servants and foster a diverse and productive community.
“It’s important that people understand that we’re trying to house teachers, 20-year-olds, workers serving in restaurants and people who are in police or firefighting,” Braunschweiger said. “Folks have a belief that (affordable housing) brings blight or crime and I think there’s a misconception of what affordable housing is. We’re trying to house hardworking individuals.”