Green Housing Improves Living Standards For Ventura County Farmworkers
A new development in Ventura County, Valle Naranjal, is nearing completion in the community of Piru, located 50 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The development boasts “green” environmental standards, a soccer field, a community garden and three playgrounds or “tot lots.”
It will also house 66 families who must be low-income farmworkers.
According to project manager Miguel Garcia, the development will be a welcomed change for families struggling to find affordable housing in Ventura County.
“Sometimes we find three families living together in a garage,” Garcia said. “There’s a desperate need.”
But building a 66-unit farmworker complex in a town with a population of 2,000 wasn’t an automatic sell, according to Garcia.
For Piru residents like Jake Barnes, a 28-year-old carpenter, such a large influx of new residents threatens to change the town where he was raised.
“One apartment complex opens up and all of a sudden, I’m a minority in my own city,” Barnes said. He cited crowded streets, noise and graffiti as his main concerns for the new community.
“This is a quiet family neighborhood and I don’t want to see that change,” Barnes said.
Garcia used several strategies to placate local concerns. Designing units to appear as one large home helped disguise the apartment complex in an upscale neighborhood.
“Those negative stereotypes go away after the neighbors see the type of product and community we provide,” Garcia said.
There are between 15,000 and 20,000 farmworkers in Ventura County, according to the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. The numbers fluctuate depending on seasons and crop harvests, but year-long crops, such as strawberries and citrus fruits, require a permanent labor force to produce.
Agriculture is a $1.6 billion industry and generates $20 million in tax revenue for the county each year, according to the Ventura County Economic Collaborative. The average farm laborer earns $10.22 an hour, according to the USDA.
But with average apartment rentals in Ventura County at nearly $1,500 per month, adequate housing is often out of reach. Rent at Valle Naranjal is set at 30 percent of a resident’s income to keep units affordable.
“We know how hard they work,” Garcia said. “They deserve a safe place to live.”
The amenities of Valle Naranjal will be a significant change from the farmworker housing that used to stand on the site.
It used to be the Piru Labor Camp but farmworkers called the place “El Campo.” The ten barracks-style buildings were packed with cots and public latrines sat out back. According to the USDA, the Fillmore-Piru Citrus Association built the camp in the 1950s to house the farmworkers who picked the lemons and oranges that still remain staple crops in the Santa Clara River Valley.
The camp has seen several reincarnations since then, including its use as a single-resident occupancy lodge. But when the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation purchased the 8-acre parcel of land, Garcia said he was determined to design a property Piru could be proud of.
“It’s an asset to the community,” Garcia said of the nearly-complete Valle Naranjal project.
In order to qualify to live in the rent-controlled complex, potential residents must not only prove they are low-income farmworkers; they must also agree to rules that prohibit alcohol in public areas and satellite dishes.
The rules don’t seem to deter many, according to Garcia. CEDC recently opened a smaller housing development for agricultural workers in Oxnard. Camino Gonzales is an 18-unit complex which features many of the same environmentally-friendly features as Valle Naranjal.
“Everybody is just happy to have a safe, decent place to live,” Garcia said.
That seems to be the case for Rafael Ayala, Jr. Ayala is a 16-year-old Oxnard high school student who will be moving into a brand-new three-bedroom unit with his parents, who both work at local farms, and his two brothers. He says the community is better than where he lives now.
“Everything is so nice and so new,” Ayala said. “I’m so excited.”
His mother, Reina Ayala, said her family’s new apartment is larger, cleaner and $400 a month cheaper than the one-room apartment where they live now. She seemed as excited as her son to move in.
“Our old apartment is run-down,” Reina Ayala said through a translator. “I can’t wait to move our things in.”
She said she was very content with her new home.
“It’s very beautiful,” Reina Ayala said. “What else can I say?”
The Non-Profit's Green Philosophy
The Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation is a non-profit development firm that has built and managed 22 communities in Ventura County and in the surrounding area. It has provided affordable housing to farm workers, seniors and low-income residents since 1981.
“We’re not your typical development firm,” Garcia said.
One point of distinction for CEDC is its board directive to exceed environmental standards. The facilities of Valle Naranjal actually surpass the energy efficiency standards of Title 24, California’s code to regulate energy consumption, by more than 10 percent.
Energy-efficient appliances, sustainable building materials, and light timers help push the community beyond current efficiency standards. Luz Soto, a property manager with CEDC, said the firm has been trying to keep pace with changing standards.
“How we’re building is going to be a law in a couple of years,” Soto said. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of the game.”
The most recent projects are family- as well as environmentally- friendly, according to Soto. CEDC installed community gardens and playgrounds in Camino Gonzales and Valle Naranjal.
“We’ve really outdone ourselves this time,” Soto said.
CEDC also manages the communities it builds and owns the property management company that oversees its projects. This allows the firm to ensure that only non-toxic cleaners are used but that families are not pressured to move and that community standards are maintained. Having resident managers adds to the oversight.
“When you’re living in the neighborhood you manage,” Soto said, “it sets a much friendlier tone.”
Since CEDC started more than 30 years ago, the firm has had time to build long-term relationships with many of its residents because apartment turnover is so low.
“When we build these relationships, we’re practically building marriages,” Garcia said.
Quality Has Its Cost
CEDC is one of the largest providers of low-income housing in Ventura County. As a non-profit organization, it relies on a “layered financing” strategy.
“We take funding anywhere we can get it,” Soto said.
Private sponsors often partner on community improvement projects. In the case of Camino Gonzales and Valle Naranjal, Wells Fargo partnered with CEDC to fund the properties.
State and federal grants make up the rest of CEDC’s funding sources. Tax credits for low-income housing keep operating costs low while one-time grants award money for specific projects. For example, CEDC received a grant of $650,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank to build Valle Naranjal.
CEDC also secured grants available to environmentally friendly projects through the federal Green Jobs program. Those grants limit construction contracts to union labor of which accounts for less than 15 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In an era of fiscal conservatism, securing public funding can be fraught with criticism.
Organizations like the Alliance for Worker Freedom have opposed this type of funding because it privileges union labor over the majority of the workforce in a growing niche of construction.
“We are sure of the role of green jobs in the nation’s economic recovery,” the Alliance for Worker Freedom said in a statement. “But excluding 90 percent of the nation’s workforce will not aid the private sector.”
Grover Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, advocates blocking funding for welfare projects, like the CEDC’s, as a measure to balance the federal budget.
While pressure against non-profit funding exists, Garcia said he is confident even critics, like Jake Barnes, can’t argue with CEDC’s results.
“We run a pretty tight ship,” Garcia said. “Once we move in, we really turn heads.”
The opportunity to turn heads in Piru will come later this Spring when residents move into Valle Naranjal at the end of this month. Soto said the need for affordable housing is always in season.
“There’s always more people to help,” Soto said,” no matter what crop is being harvested.”
As the move-in process begins at Camino Gonzales, Rafael Ayala, Sr. said his head is still spinning over his family’s new home.
“I can’t believe it’s mine,” Ayala, Sr. said. “It’s beautiful.”