Squeezed by spiraling real estate prices and low-paying jobs, Ventura County families are facing tougher times finding an affordable place to live, according to a study issued Wednesday by two agencies.
Local politicians, educators and business leaders polled by the United Way of Ventura County and the Ventura County Community Foundation said affordable housing is the most pressing need for area residents today, outranking crime, gang prevention and the need for AIDS care.
"It was interesting to me that so many respondents identified affordable housing as such a leading concern," United Way President Laura McAvoy said.
The survey was designed as a gauge of community concerns, and not a recommendation for specific programs, but may be used by officials in planning programs when results are released in a 46-page report to agencies and business leaders around the county.
"We seriously searched to find out these are the issues to prioritize that community leaders think are serious issues," said Alan Teague, president of the community foundation. "We have no cure for delinquency and gangs, but we now know that each town has problems with them. We're not trying to cough up all the answers, but we're hoping to define them."
Those polled were asked to rank 47 concerns. In addition to affordable housing, those who responded targeted four other serious needs: prevention of delinquency, gangs, drug abuse and crime, as well as more programs for the mentally ill and the homeless.
Many of the issues defined by community leaders were problems felt primarily by the poor. As the poverty gap widens in the next 10 years, the report noted, senior citizens and minority groups will feel the lack of programs most keenly, particularly the Latino community, which makes up about 25% of the county's residents and is projected to grow.
Some of the information has already been useful, officials said. When the Ventura County Community Foundation decided to grant $35,500, some of it was earmarked for Latino youths, said Cathy Edge, executive director of the foundation.
Many of the issues cited in the current survey reflect the same trends and data released in October, 1986, when the United Way issued its first report on needed programs in the county. Affordable housing was also considered one of the most serious concerns in that report.
"The shortage of housing that low- and moderate-income people can afford to rent or buy is Ventura County's most widespread social problem," according to the 1986 report.
But by last year, when the newest survey was conducted, little had changed. The predominance of low-paying jobs and booming real estate prices made it difficult for the poor to buy or to rent homes, the report found.
Ventura was considered the second least affordable area for single-family housing in the state last year. As average prices of homes increased in 1989, according to the report, only 19% of the people living in the county could afford to buy them.
The ranks of the homeless have also grown since the last report was issued. In 1985, a United Way task force studying the homeless estimated that about 2,000 people were living on the streets. Today, according to the report, the figure has more than doubled to about 4,500 homeless in the county.
One city councilman said the survey results only confirm what he has already observed in his own community.
Bernardo Perez, a councilman in Moorpark, where more than a third of the population is Latino, said many of his constituents are working poor, those who have jobs but cannot afford the mortgage payments.
"The private sector really isn't addressing that sector of the housing market. It's really the upperscale home purchaser that has a lot to choose from. Land costs too much," Perez said.