In a dramatic turnaround, Project Understanding on Wednesday withdrew its proposal to convert a decrepit Ventura apartment building into a homeless shelter, just two weeks after news of the project sparked the ire of dozens of residents.
The nonprofit agency, which has been serving the county's poor for more than a decade, said it was frustrated by the costly and time-consuming process set up by city officials, who last fall offered to help fund proposals aimed at aiding homeless families.
"We entered this process in good faith, but we found ourselves in a position that was beyond our comprehension," said a letter signed by Pat Driskell, Project Understanding's executive director, and delivered Wednesday to the Ventura City Council.
"In short, we were out of our league when we chose to respond" to the city's request for proposals. "And the league we were invited to enter is not one we choose to join," it said.
Project Understanding's $1.7-million plan to convert the 14-unit De Anza Hotel on Ventura Avenue into a shelter had been a joint venture with Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., a Saticoy-based nonprofit group that has built several housing projects for low-income farm workers.
$855,000 Selling Price
A Cabrillo spokesman said Wednesday that the group would probably still purchase the building, pay for seismic repairs and continue offering its rooms to low-income residents. Under a sales agreement signed with the building's owner, Cabrillo has until May 1 to decide whether to buy the hotel for $855,000.
"The number of low-income units disappearing from the market is well-documented," said Ralph Lippman, Cabrillo's economic development manager. "This way we can assure that it stays a part of the low-income housing stock."
The plan for a homeless shelter had depended almost entirely on the ability of the two groups to promptly win the city's financial support, which would, in turn, have allowed them to apply this spring for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal grants.
They had hoped for $30,000 in seed money to help cover legal fees, as well as a portion of the $238,000 that the city had set aside over the last several years for housing and homeless needs.
But at a meeting Monday, the Ventura City Council voted against awarding the seed money, which staff members described as a "premature" request. And the three council members on the city's affordable housing subcommittee, which will make a recommendation on the $238,000 next month, have not been quick to embrace Project Understanding's proposal.
"The whole process has been characterized by a deafening silence," Elaine Lyford-Nojima, president of Project Understanding's board of directors, told the council Monday.
"Our plans have become less tenable with each passing day," she said, adding that the city's foot-dragging had caused her group to miss a deadline for receiving up to $400,000 in federal matching funds.
However, Councilwoman Nan Drake, a member of the affordable housing subcommittee, criticized Project Understanding for assuming that the city's support would be forthcoming.
"I sort of resent the fact that you are blaming us for your loss of funding," said Drake, who added later in an interview: "I don't think Project Understanding did themselves any favors" by speaking out at the meeting.
The news was greeted enthusiastically by the De Anza's mostly low-income residents and several neighboring businesses, which had objected to being displaced to make room for the homeless.
"It would have been a nightmare moving," said Jane Dron, a free-lance writer, who has lived in the hotel for seven years. "If they'd buy it and renovate it for us, we'd all be glad because we all qualify for what they call low-income housing."
Project Understanding and Cabrillo had offered to pay about $4,800 in relocation compensation per apartment, a sum they said would be sufficient to land the residents in comparable living quarters.
"I feel disappointed and relieved," Driskell said. "It was something that was consuming a whole lot of staff time that we could certainly use for other purposes. But it was also an excellent project and an opportunity that was missed."