OXNARD — Vincent Godina makes his way down a narrow alley in the dark, peering through a chain-link fence at one of the scenes in La Colonia that fill him with disgust: a pile of rotting lumber that used to be a garage.
"Why isn't anyone cleaning this up?" snaps Godina, a 52-year-old carpenter, during a moonlit walk through his neighborhood. "This type of thing just lowers the property values all over La Colonia."
But Godina has a plan he thinks could help touch off a revitalization effort in one of the city's oldest, poorest and most crowded neighborhoods.
Godina is president of El Pueblo Unido Reinvestment Corp., a nonprofit group that wants to use federal seed money and the labor of future homeowners to launch a program bringing decent, low-cost houses to La Colonia.
The group would start with between two and four homes using $273,000 in federal money. Under the proposal, El Pueblo Unido would use the profits from the sale of the first homes to buy other empty lots and build new houses, repeating the process as the group sold more residences.
"We want the project to continue on and on by itself," Godina said.
Godina believes the project--based on the philosophy of the Habitat for Humanity organization, which requires future homeowners to participate in the home construction--could help reverse La Colonia's decline and move families now living in shacks and garages into economical houses.
But many residents and property owners have come out against the project.
With a pot of $273,000, the project's critics say the group should be able to build more homes, or at least help several potential homeowners make down payments on existing residences.
What's more, residents and property owners say El Pueblo Unido failed to meet with community leaders early on to discuss the details of the project, dooming it from the start. "It doesn't seem to have the blessings of the neighborhood," said Virginia Ramirez, a 70-year-old Oxnard resident who rents out her former home in La Colonia to another family. "Why is that amount of money being spent for only two houses? It is not going to alleviate very much the housing situation in this area."
When El Pueblo Unido representatives went before the Oxnard City Council three weeks ago seeking federal money, La Colonia residents and property owners jammed the council chambers in protest.
The council decided to table the issue and urged El Pueblo Unido representatives to continue meeting with neighborhood leaders to gain more community support.
But Godina did not fare much better at a recent meeting of the La Colonia Neighborhood Council. Residents and property owners stood up one by one to assail El Pueblo Unido's proposal as ill-conceived and shrouded in secrecy.
"This group did not even check with the lot owners to see if they could even buy the properties," said Harold Ceja, a 60-year-old truck driver and a former chairman of La Colonia's Neighborhood Council.
Frustrated but not defeated, Godina said then that he would take his case back to the neighborhood council at its next meeting in March.
"They are trying to kill something before it has been born," said Godina of the project's critics.
But despite the dispute, El Pueblo Unido representatives and residents have long agreed on at least one thing: the desperate lack of decent, low-cost housing in La Colonia. The shortage is not unique to the neighborhood, home to more than 8,000 residents.
But as Oxnard's poorest neighborhood with about a third of its residents living below the poverty level, La Colonia is notorious for its cramped, makeshift dwellings.
"I can see all these chicken coops going up, and you know that there are people living in them when you can see a TV antenna on top of it all," Ramirez said.
More than five residents on average live in each dwelling in La Colonia compared with a citywide average of about 3.5.
Sal Gonzalez, director of the Oxnard Housing Authority, said city code enforcement officers go after property owners who rent garages that have not been properly converted into housing or who violate other city ordinances.
But Gonzalez said cracking down on property owners may force some families onto the street.
"People are asked to leave the garage, and often we don't know what happens after that," Gonzalez said.
Mindful of the neighborhood's chronic lack of decent housing, city officials say they are doing what they can to improve the situation.
Using federal funds, the city is expected to complete an extensive, $3.2-million renovation of 100 units of public housing at the Felicia Court project in La Colonia in July.
The city has also disbursed more than $280,000 in federal loans and grants in the last two years to private property owners seeking to rehabilitate their homes. And city officials are discussing tearing down 70 units of public housing along Colonia Road and building low-cost houses in an effort to turn renters into homeowners.