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Dick Turpin

Little Visalia Scores Big for Planning

April 26, 1987|Dick Turpin

The San Joaquin Valley's Visalia, known best perhaps as the gateway to Sequoia National Park, has made it all the way to the Big Time.

In New York City's Sheraton Centre Tuesday, its representatives will receive the American Planning Assn.'s coveted Distinguished Leadership Award for outstanding achievement in planning.

That will complement its earlier selection as the League of California Cities' recipient of the "City of Excellence" honor for innovations in low-income housing.

Through the concerted efforts of volunteers and city officials, the nonprofit Visalians Interested in Affordable Housing (VIAH) was started in 1982 to do exactly what the group's simple title implies--provide affordable homes for senior citizens, minorities, developmentally disabled persons and single parents.

In its citations for the honor, the American Planning Assn. expressed some surprise. It said:

"There is no reason to believe that this community would be this involved in aggressively and successfully providing affordable housing to needy individuals in their market. The size of the community (pop. 62,000) and the level of its accomplishment make it worthy of a national award."

It added: "Implementing this program is quite an accomplishment in today's stringent planning environment."

The secret of Visalia's success was grounded in the determination of its citizen leaders and city council members believing in a "working partnership." That is not an easy task for any city, but obviously Visalia is blessed with fewer layers of the bureaucracy which can sidetrack, discourage and stop the best efforts and the best intentions of any group.

VIAH, as an eager but moneyless new corporation, weathered the storms of civic doubt and bankers' reluctance. It all began with city council authorization of an interest-free, $100,000 line of credit from the general fund, along with a guarantee of a line of credit with a local bank.

Then, using segments of state and federal housing enactments, VIAH got into the home financing process for 89 homes and then--again backed by city council guarantees--obtained a $2.8-million construction loan.

That was the start. But nothing was to be that easy for VIAH. Three months of rain, the heaviest rainy season in Visalia history, threats of lawsuits, the coincidental construction of streets and homes and a water main breaking and flooding utility company trenches, all slowed and discouraged the enterprise.

But the project, Twin Oaks, was completed with each home including a two-car garage, fenced backyard, landscaped front yard with automatic sprinklers, wood-shake roof, wood siding, carpet and vinyl, dishwasher, gas range and garbage disposal. The development's lots ranged from 3,500 to 4,500 square feet and its residents have a 33,000-square-foot park.

Homes, in five plans, ranged from 819 to 1,318 square feet and $33,000 to $53,000. A handicapped person's home of 848 square feet cost $33,000.

Through VIAH's efforts over a four-year period, 150 families have purchased such homes. The average monthly income required to buy a home in Visalia is $2,500 but homeownership through VIAH was made available to those with monthly incomes as low as $900.

Subsequent projects include two subdivisions, 47-acre Fairview Village with new-home phases of 61 and 56 units, priced from $43,900 to $55,000, and a 19-acre mobile home project where residents may own 109 spaces and enjoy a three-acre park. Another 36-home project is also in the planning stages.

All told, VIAH and its cohorts will have about 200 homes for sale this summer, according to Judy Russell, a city planner instrumental in the overall effort. She and others are also planning to create a "how-to" booklet and seminars to share their hard-found knowledge.

They are already at work with the City of Bell Gardens on some aspects of a "working partnership" plan.

At the New York ceremonies, Randall York, VIAH president; Robert Hamar, a manager with both VIAH and the city, and Phyllis Coring, planning manager for the city, will accept the honors.

At the same event, UCLA's Jacqueline Leavitt, urban planning professor, will receive the Diana Donald Award, emblematic of community service, "particularly . . . involving the attainment of women's rights in the planning profession and the community."

Her citation reads: "The influence she has with her students is very positive for planners and particularly for women entering the planning profession."

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