Even before the final coat of paint was dry two weeks ago, poor farm workers eagerly began to set up house in long-awaited townhomes east of Fillmore.
Nearly 50 farm workers and their families have now moved into Rancho Sespe, a pastel-colored housing complex off California 126.
Completion of the $8.5-million, five-year project marks the end of a battle between poverty housing advocates and area farmers, who argued that a housing project does not belong in a farm belt.
"It was a real struggle to get here, and I think we've done something really good," said Jesse Ornelas, project manager with Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., a private agency that builds housing for Ventura County's poor.
In selecting families for the project, Ornelas sifted through a stack of more than 300 applications. Because of the enormous demand, only the poorest families qualified. Most destitute at Rancho Sespe is a family of four with an annual income of $6,700.
"These families have nothing," Ornelas said. "They are the poorest of the poor."
Residents pay between $200 and $590 a month for two- to four-bedroom townhouses equipped with a refrigerator, stove, two bathrooms and a patio.
"This is the nicest place I've ever lived," said Juana Hernandez, 32. Before moving to Rancho Sespe, she shared a four-bedroom house in Moorpark with her husband, their five children and three other families.
"Every day our children would beg us to move, but we could not afford to go anywhere else until this came along," Hernandez said.
In addition to the houses, Rancho Sepse has a community center, two laundry rooms and a soccer field. A day-care center run by the preschool Head Start program is scheduled to open next month.
"This is a comfortable, safe environment," Ornelas said. "Far better than most of these people have ever had."
The seed of the housing project was sewn in 1979 in a farm labor dispute at nearby Rancho Sespe, then the world's largest lemon orchard. About 500 farm worker families were evicted from a labor camp when the ranch was sold and its housing condemned.
Cabrillo launched a prolonged legal battle. The corporation formed the nonprofit Rancho Sespe Workers Improvement Assn. and planned the 20-acre Rancho Sespe housing project.
Farmers challenged the county construction permit, arguing that citrus groves were not suitable for urbanization.
In 1987, the State Court of Appeals granted Cabrillo approval to go forward with its plans.
The first 50 rentals were completed in April, 1990--the latest 50 this month. With their lush lawns and blooming rose bushes, the older houses stand in contrast to their newly built neighbors, naked except for a smattering of saplings.
New resident Victor Dominguez said he is eager to plant a vegetable garden. "Soon we'll get some tomatoes and chili peppers going, and maybe some onions too," Dominguez said.
While the families settle in, some farmers are still steamed about the project.
"They had no business putting that many people on such a small piece of land in an area that is designed for industrial agriculture," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.
"The emotions of people who needed decent and safe housing overrode any land-use issues based on good urban planning," he said.
County housing officials applauded the project, but said it did little to alleviate a growing shortage of housing for poor families in Ventura County.
"We have many families who, because of the recession, are poor for the first time," said Carolyn Briggs, executive director of the Ventura County Housing Authority. "They are at risk of losing their homes, and they have nothing to fall back on."
Two years ago the authority's waiting list hit an all-time high of 5,400 families, forcing the agency to stop accepting new applications, Briggs said.
The list, which has been whittled down to 2,000, remains closed, Briggs said. Also, the Oxnard Housing Authority has a five-year waiting list, officials said.
"There's a real need for low-income housing," Briggs said. "Every project relieves the pressure a little bit."