Thursday, October 14, 1999
It''s instructional--perhaps revelatory--to know that the average price of a house in Monterey County is $337,295. There''s even a little bit of sympathy that could be extended to folks trying to make ends meet while making mortgage payments on such places.
Meanwhile, the other 80 or so percent of the people who live in Monterey County--people who will likely never have enough money to even dream about buying a $300,000 house--want to know what government officials, developers, and others who directly or indirectly shape housing policies are doing to make sure that folks who don''t have trust funds or stock portfolios can afford a decent home.
The answer is not much. So much newspaper space, task-force time, and Internet bellyaching has been devoted to the "problem" of soaring single-family home prices that not much ink, breath, or finger-power remains to address the sort of problems faced by people who earn $10 an hour, work two or three jobs, and have to buy braces for their children.
Here are three stories--among many that could be written--intended to breathe some interest into Monterey County''s real housing crisis.
Build Me a Home
It''s the Housing, Stupid
You''d think that county officials have a good plan to fix the affordable housing crisis. Think again. By Mark Worth
Let''s say you''re a high-ranking official in Monterey County government. One of your jobs--among your most important jobs, in fact--is making sure that there is enough affordable, livable housing for people who, through their tax dollars, pay your salary.
You and your colleagues brainstorm a great idea. Why not require developers to either build affordable housing within their projects or, if they prefer, pay for the units to be built somewhere else? You succeed in getting a law passed to that effect, and you set up a committee to run the program.
County officials got that far, passing the law and setting up the Housing Advisory Committee in the 1980s. They got about 1,000 low- and moderate-income housing units built in the first 10 years. Good start.
Then, around 1995, the committee started having trouble, of all things, getting enough of its members to come to meetings--what''s called in the parliamentary world, "establishing a quorum." No quorum means that no money in the county''s fund can be handed out to affordable housing builders, many of them understaffed nonprofits clinging to survival on shoestring budgets.
Committee members--all volunteers serving on their own time--did everything they could to try to fix the problem. They called county housing officials. They called the county''s top attorney. They called members of the Board of Supervisors. They got nowhere. Finally, the head of the committee asked to speak at a Board of Supervisors meeting in July.
"We found ourselves increasingly ignored. It can be demoralizing to be volunteers," says committee chair Donna Johnston. "It''s difficult to understand. We took all the steps we thought we should take. It got so ridiculous that I almost threw in the towel."
Johnston finally got some satisfaction. Her committee has enough members now to do its job, and it''s back in the business of supporting places to live for people who earn low and moderate incomes.
In many respects, however, the damage has already been done. For a better part of four years--as housing prices soared and incomes of working families stagnated--Johnston''s committee missed out on numerous opportunities to help affordable housing developments get off the ground.
The foul-up speaks volumes about county officials'' commitment to solving what likely stands next to the water crisis as Monterey County''s most serious socio-political problem.
You''ve read a lot of facts and figures about the situation, but consider a few more:
In 1992, county officials said 4,316 of 5,692 new housing units that needed to be built in unincorporated areas over the following five years should be set aside for low- and moderate-income families. The county, however, has no idea how it''s doing toward meeting that goal.
In 1990, the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments said 13,522 of 21,191 new housing units that needed to be built countywide over the following six years should be set aside for low- and moderate-income families. AMBAG, however, has no idea how local governments are doing toward meeting that goal.
Forty percent of Monterey Countians say they''re spending more than a third of their income on rent.
There are 1,425 families sitting on waiting lists for subsidized, Section 8 housing.
In a recent survey, the No. 1 complaint among respondents was the county''s high cost of living. Fourteen percent of those surveyed reported going without basic needs, such as housing, food, clothing, or child care.
It''s little wonder that Landwatch of Monterey County, a public-policy research group, recently gave county governments an "F" on their affordable housing performance. It''s also little wonder that AMBAG researcher Christie Oosterhous had this to say about affordable housing: "I hate this issue."
Judging by their most recent affordable housing plan, county officials don''t seem to thrilled about it either. The section of the plan devoted to rental housing issues contains a total of 71 words. The section on "unmet housing needs" is less than two pages long. And, nowhere in the report do county officials state how many affordable housing units need to be built over a certain period of time. "It is not a very coherent document," says Johnston of the Housing Advisory Committee. "It was done in a hurry."
None of this is making the job of Sally Reed, the county''s recently hired administrative chief, any easier. Among her first major decisions was to bring together the county''s housing staffers and create a new department under her direct supervision. Doing so, she hopes, will add more "credibility" to the county''s affordable housing efforts. But, she acknowledges, "I don''t know what the solution is yet."
If the head of Monterey County government doesn''t know, who does?
Why aren''t farmworkers flocking to a brand-new apartment complex in Salinas? By Rebecca Crocker
Miguel sits on the hood of a faded, brown station wagon, gazing beyond the scruffy fields to watch cars pass on the main road. >"Aqui me siento tranquilo," ("I feel comfortable here.") he says. Miguel''s neighbors feel the same way. Yet more than a year after its grand opening, Casas del Sol remains half empty.
Flanked by dilapidated apartment buildings and a gaudy movie theater, Casas del Sol is an island of peace and security for Miguel and about 20 fellow farmworkers. Ten years and $600,000 in the making, the development was born of a unique partnership between the Monterey County Housing Authority, Hartnell College, the Salinas Redevelopment Agency, and the Bank of Salinas.
"We built Casas del Sol in response to an overwhelming need that single farmworkers have for housing," says the Housing Authority''s Anna Burns. "We thought, ''Build and they will come.''"
But they haven''t come. At 50 percent occupancy, Casas del Sol is the fullest it''s ever been. There have been times, though, when the six communal units--each with four bedrooms, a living room, bathroom, and kitchen--have been near empty.
Unaccustomed to having to market their projects, Housing Authority officials have taken out ads in local papers and on radio stations, distributed fliers in the fields, and talked to growers. Salinas City Planner Bob Richeleau is among many people involved with the project who wonders: "What''s keeping the workers away?"
Everything and nothing, depending on whom you ask. Miguel and other Casas del Sol residents point to practical problems, such as cramped quarters, high rent, and inadequate kitchen facilities. One resident theorized: "People don''t want to obey rules. Here we''re in bed by 10, we keep clean and respect each other. Some people don''t want that."
While par for the course at government-run facilities, those rules, along with other trappings of bureaucracy, may explain the low turnout. The Housing Authority doesn''t check a would-be tenant''s immigration status, but it does require potential residents to fill out an application, undergo a background check, and put down a security deposit and upfront rent totaling $210. While these requirements may sound reasonable, Burns acknowledges they may represent a sort of culture shock for farmworkers.
Formalities and interacting with the government are not favorite pastimes among the highly mobile and sometimes undocumented farmworker population. Migrant workers who pass through Monterey County follow the growing seasons throughout northern California and the Pacific Northwest, returning periodically to homes in Mexico and Central America. Scratching out a tenuous existence, defined by bare-bones wages, migrant workers generally live in substandard spaces where they pay minimal rent and move freely.
The Housing Authority''s Jose Gomez explains that while such residences may be dilapidated and uncomfortable, "these folks came here to work and send money home. That''s their primary objective." The importance of penny pinching (so money can be sent to family members back home) and keeping a safe distance from >"la migra"--the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--may be reasons enough for migrant workers to be wary of places like Casas del Sol.
But the Housing Authority claims it doesn''t interact with the INS or federal law enforcement agencies. "We have no obligation to turn people in for past crimes," says Gomez. "The background checks are for internal purposes only, to protect other residents."
Some Housing Authority officials now say they should have considered allowing people to move in anonymously. Says Burns, looking around an empty apartment with furniture piled up, ready for someone to use, "Maybe we didn''t produce the right product."
Juan Uranga of the Center for Community Advocacy, a farmworker advocacy group, predicts sunny days for Casas del Sol, saying it''s only a matter of time before trust is established and the place is full with a waiting list. "The state-run migrant camps for families have filled up every year for decades," Uranga says. "Once the Housing Authority gains a good record with the workers, it will fill, too. Word-of-mouth marketing takes time. People need to feel comfortable."
Tom Cravens of the Housing Authority laments that the agency never asked farmworkers the very real questions of what they wanted, what they needed, and what would make them comfortable. But he remains hopeful. "I''m sure that one of these years," says Cravens, sounding more like Yogi Berra than a government official, "Casas del Sol will become an overnight success."
For more information on Casas del Sol, call 905-0940.
SalinasNIMBYs Get Their Way
In a choice between farmworker homes and an apartment complex, choosy Creekbridge residents choose the latter. By Barbara Paris
Ayear ago, they kicked and screamed about the prospect of 54 new homes for low-income farmworkers being built in their tidy Creekbridge neighborhood in northeast Salinas. They rang up city officials, held community meetings, and generally did all they could to block builders of the project from ever breaking ground.
Today, Jeanne Kennada says she and her Creekbridge neighbors welcome the 160 moderate-income apartments that are about to be built on the very same chunk of land. "We knew what the options were at the time," says Kennada. "To me, apartments are a lot better choice."
In one of odder stories about NIMBYism that you''re likely to hear, Kennada and her fellow citizen-activists preferred a high-density apartment complex--something you''d expect homeowners to fight like heck--to a low-density, single-family subdivision. What gives?
The official reason, according to Kennada, is that the farmworker homes wouldn''t have "fit in" to the middle- and upper-middle-class Creekbridge neighborhood because they would have been clumped together, instead of being scattered throughout the area. Residents also worried that the farmworkers might not have been inclined or able to maintain the homes at the level to which the well-manicured Creekbridge has grown accustomed.
As for the unofficial reasons, one is left to speculate about the socio-cultural factors that may have been at work.
When all was said and done, a nonprofit housing group was out of luck, a for-profit builder was in business, and Creekbridge got the neighbors they wanted--even if they got a lot more of them.
Out of luck is CHISPA, a well-respected organization best known for its "self-help" initiative, in which low-income folks--mainly farmworkers--build their own homes with the help of construction experts. The Salinas project was not destined to be a self-help one, but farmworkers--among the hardest hit by the affordable housing crisis--would have been the beneficiaries.
"We had hoped to provide homeownership opportunities to people who work in agriculture. It would have been an excellent program for the city," says CHISPA President Alfred Diaz-Infante. "The area was excellent, with existing infrastructure and schools. It would have been ideal. It would have fit in well."
The development would have fit in so well, in fact, that CHISPA wouldn''t have maximized the zoning allowed on the 11-acre parcel on Nantucket Boulevard, on a bluff across from Round Hill Farms just south of Everett Alvarez High School. CHISPA actually wanted to reduce the property''s zoning, an almost freakish request in today''s profit-crazed housing market.
The ink had barely dried on CHISPA''s plans, however, when Creekbridge residents started raising a stink. "There was organized opposition to our development," deadpans Diaz-Infante, a veteran nonprofit leader who''s not easily offended. Sensing the project was going nowhere in the face of objection from moneyed residents, Diaz-Infante sold the property to an investor, who in turn sold it to Bay Development Group of Fresno.
In yet another irony, Bay Development was allowed to proceed with its 160-unit apartment complex without going through a messy zoning process. No one could have objected to the project, even if they wanted to. Construction is set to start in the beginning of the year, says Bay Development''s Dwight Long.
More odd still, while they couldn''t agree on the CHISPA project, Kennada and Diaz-Infante both see the Bay Development complex as a benefit to the apartment-starved city. "I don''t have a problem with it," says Kennada. "We need apartments as much as homes. Not everyone can afford homes." Diaz-Infante concurs: "What''s happening is not totally a bad thing, because rental housing is expensive in the city."
CHISPA may get something going in Salinas yet. City officials just set aside $1 million for affordable housing, which, combined with $500,000 each from the state and county, and $350,000 from the feds, may give Diaz-Infante enough money to build CHISPA''s next farmworker community. That is, if he can find some good neighbors.