Thursday, August 31, 2000
Caught in a windy channel between Highway 101 and the foothills, the Camphora Apartment complex in Soledad was never intended to be permanent family housing. Built in 1958 to house seasonal single migrant workers, the 40 free-standing apartments are now packed full of low-income Mexican-American families working year-round in the fields and packing plants of the Salinas Valley. The property was in a state of disrepair when Carmel Valley resident Rick Stemple bought it back in May 1999, and a debate has since ensued over whether the camp can be salvaged or if it''s time for demolition.
Stemple, who owns several properties statewide in addition to farming and teaching science at Pacific Grove Middle School, insists he has poured his time and $50,000 into fixing up the camp. "I''ve done a ton of work on this place," he says. "I want to make it good. It''s been under three owners and I''m the first one to put some money into it. I''m trying to do the right thing, but labor camp owners always get the black hat."
Stemple concedes that large stumbling blocks to progress exist, citing a fire that destroyed a unit in the first month of his ownership and alleged gang problems in the camp. "I wring my hands and ask God, ''What can I do?''" Stemple says in frustration. "This place will never be like apartments in Carmel Valley."
Camphora''s on-site manager of eight years, Mario Ortiz, observes that things are looking up. Ortiz has survived three different owners and became a founding member of the Center for Community Advocacy''s resident committee in 1992 when a previous owner defaulted on gas and electric payments, causing several black-outs in the camp. Ortiz says Stemple has given him a green light to make improvements as necessary, including installing new stoves in some units, repairing a burnt-down unit and repainting the graffiti on outside walls.
While saying the camp is far from perfect (it still lacks a laundry room, a front gate to protect residents, and a functional road), Ortiz applauds Stemple''s willingness to invest in the camp. "He is better than the ones before him," says Ortiz. "They were all lies. Just took the rent and said, ''I''ll buy you a new couch tomorrow'' and never came through." Proof of Stemple''s improvements, says Ortiz, includes paying in arrears for building violations of prior owners, and the fact that visits from the county building inspectors used to last all day and now take only an hour.
But the Center for Community Advocacy in Salinas and the low-income housing development group CHISPA believe no amount of money or good intentions will be enough, saying Camphora doesn''t need a facelift but rather a new beginning. "It''s time to get the camp into the hands of a nonprofit with access to public funds and charity," says the center''s director, Juan Uranga. "Even good-minded people don''t have the capital for thorough renovation."
This new model for farmworker housing development comes on the heels of the state''s decision to budget $46.5 million to the state Farmworker Housing Grant Program. CHISPA''s president and CEO, Alfred Diaz-Infante, says the concept is to apply for state funding to redevelop the existing camp to house the same residents and accessing public funds for rent subsidies. Diaz-Infante says CHISPA has already submitted several applications for state funding and is looking into opportunities to purchase other camps.
CHISPA''s John Prader says Camphora''s original design consisted of bunks and a large mess hall to accommodate single Mexican workers who returned home only to sleep and eat. Now, however, the presence of well over 60 kids means the camp needs redesigning for "family living."
"Stemple is a businessman making a good-faith effort," says Prader. "But any improvements he makes just means higher costs for us and no added value, because we''ll demolish the place and start new."
Fifteen-year resident and vegetable packer Roberto Rosas agrees that a fresh start is a good idea. "This place is always the same, we have the same problems," he says in a resigned voice. "We have cockroaches, rats, no laundry, window problems, clogged drains. Details like that. This place is just very old. You can fix one side, but the other will break. The problems never end."
Diaz-Infante admits that convincing Stemple and other camp owners to comply with their plans could be a tough sell; camps are cash cows that generate a constant flow of earnings. Stemple purchased Camphora Apartments for only $370,000 when the prior owner defaulted on payments a year and a half ago, and he brings in $18,500 a month in rent (that''s 40 units at about $465 a month). While Stemple says the costs of mortgage, utilities and repairs have gobbled up most of his earnings to date, long-term ownership would certainly yield high returns.
CHISPA submitted a letter to Stemple several months ago offering approximately 15-20 percent over the buying price, but Prader says so far Stemple hasn''t expressed any interest.
Add a bit of bad blood to the equation. Stemple and the Center for Community Advocacy came head-to-head on a cold windy day last December when Uranga led a group of boardmembers from LandWatch Monterey County on a tour of several camps, including Camphora. Stemple was on the roof making repairs and took offense at the group members'' unannounced arrival and at their claim to be visiting friends.
The encounter left Stemple steaming. "I have never been so mad as that day on the roof. I felt my property rights were trampled," he says. His lawyer, Monterey attorney James Shaules, convinced Stemple not to pay Uranga a surprise visit in his backyard, and instead sent a letter on legal stationery requesting that the Center ask permission before bringing groups to visit.
Stemple is the first to admit he may have bitten off more than he could chew when he bought Camphora, and he indicates that enough pressure could convince him to sell. "I took this on because I''m nuts--I''m clearly out of my mind," he says with a laugh. "I knew this would be nothing but trouble. The fire that destroyed a unit in the first month I owned it was enough to knock the wind out of my sails. I probably will get out the place, because it''s just been a chronic headache."