Nearly 1,500 Oxnard residents jammed the Oxnard Civic Auditorium on Monday to sign up for the city's public housing and federal housing subsidies, although it may be years before any of them receive assistance.
"Rent and food eat up almost all of my paycheck," said Maria de los Angeles Rocha, 48, who lives in a $700-a-month apartment with her four children. "My children work part time and they pay for the utilities," said Rocha, a laundry worker.
Hundreds of residents waited in long lines to sign up for the city's limited supply of publicly owned apartments and federal subsidies--the first time the applications were accepted in five years. A dozen or so had brought sleeping bags Sunday night and slept by the door.
"We were bombarded," said Melissa Mendez, applications coordinator for the federal Housing and Urban Development department. "We were expecting a large turnout and that's exactly what we got."
Oxnard officials said the unprecedented turnout underscored the desperate need for inexpensive housing in a city that has been hit hard by the recession. The swollen lines of applicants included an insurance salesman, a bank employee and other middle-class residents who have slipped below the poverty line, officials said.
"There's a significant need out there, and a great deal is due to the economy," said Sal Gonzalez, Oxnard's housing director. "In talking to the applicants, I was astounded at the number of families that live in single rooms and converted garages."
To qualify for public housing or federal rent subsidies, applicants must earn less than half the area's median income, or about $24,000 a year for a family of four.
Nearly all of Oxnard's 780 public apartments are occupied. The residents' contribute 30% of their paychecks toward rent, regardless of the amount. In some cases, occupants pay less than $50 a month.
Under the federal subsidy program, recipients contribute 30% of their income to reside in any federally approved housing in the city. The government pays the difference between the fair market value and what the occupants can pay. Under the federal formula, Oxnard is authorized to hand out rent vouchers to 1,300 low-income renters.
Monday was the first day that applications have been accepted in Oxnard since 1987, when 2,500 people signed up during a 10-day period. Public housing is slow to turn over and 287 applicants remain on the waiting list for public housing or federal rent assistance.
By the time the current sign-up period ends April 27, city officials expect the number of applicants to easily surpass the 2,500 who signed up five years ago, Gonzalez said.
Guadalupe and Raymundo Hernandez were among the applicants who crowded the gymnasium Monday. They said they needed the government's help to move out of their room in a small, dilapidated house that they share with two other families.
"We haven't had electricity since November and we need some space for the kids to run around," said Guadalupe Hernandez, 27, who picks strawberries as well as cares for her two children.
"I wish people saw the conditions some of us have to live in," said Raymundo Hernandez, a full-time mechanic who said he has trouble coming up with his $300 rent.
Contributing to the backlog of applicants is a federal policy that allows people who receive rental assistance in other cities to transfer their privileges to Oxnard. Last year, 74 rental assistance recipients moved into Oxnard, and only 15 moved out.
"In the meantime, hundreds of Oxnard households live in crowded conditions, households who would gladly move to vacant units in Oxnard if they had the same subsidy assistance," Gonzalez said.
On March 24, the Oxnard City Council plans to hold a special meeting to consider new ways to meet the city's need for affordable housing, Gonzalez said.
Meanwhile, applicants said they are pleased to have a chance to move into better or less-expensive housing--even if it takes years. "We have to remain hopeful," said farm worker Hortensia Contreras.