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Housing Sweep Has Little Effect

Dwellings: Displaced residents of ramshackle village are no better off. Activists urge Thousands Oaks to develop a comprehensive plan.

May 11, 1997|CHRIS CHI and MIGUEL BUSTILLO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — When officials in this wealthy enclave decided to clear out a makeshift village of immigrant families about a mile from City Hall, their reasoning was simple: People should not have to live this way.

People should not have to live in slums where garages and toolsheds serve as bedrooms. People should not live without plumbing, alongside rats and flies and flimsy electrical wires that threaten lives.

Not in Thousand Oaks. Not anywhere.

Yet three weeks after code inspectors declared the ramshackle dwellings a safety hazard during a 6 a.m. sweep--forcing many of the 50 or so inhabitants onto the street by day's end--the people they displaced are living no better than before.

Some are sleeping in their cars or on the street, occasionally stopping by their old homes in hopes of getting a shower. Others are living in cramped, substandard housing in other parts of Thousand Oaks, places remarkably similar to the original hidden ghetto uncovered by inspectors.

"You have to pay a lot to live in this area, and we were not left with a lot of choices," said Lazario Montana, who moved just blocks from the shantytown to another tattered house. "The work is here. That's why we came here and that's why we stayed."

Concerned that Thousand Oaks' well-meaning actions have hurt the people they were supposed to help, social activists want to make sure future code crackdowns help the displaced find better homes.

The City Council, worried that the discovery of more overcrowded ghettos will further tarnish this suburb's squeaky-clean reputation, has already approved the creation of a tough anti-slumlord ordinance that would heap fines on property owners and speed criminal actions against them.

The next step, urges affordable housing group Many Mansions, is for Thousand Oaks to develop a comprehensive plan to assist those ousted in slum sweeps.

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"The slumlord part is real easy to do--you put these laws in place and enforce them," said the housing group's director, Dan Hardy. "But the other one opens a can of worms. If we're not going to allow slum conditions, are we going to provide housing for them? There's got to be a solution as to where these people can live."

Geoff Ware, the city code supervisor who headed the investigation into the rundown village, noted that inspectors passed out fliers listing telephone numbers for local charitable organizations during the sweep.

Charity workers received few requests for help, however. They suspect that many of the shantytown's former dwellers were afraid to come forward.

"A lot of the folks admitted to being undocumented immigrants," said Karen Ingram of Lutheran Social Services. "So there's going to be a fear of going to any organized group."

Ware said the presence of Ventura County sheriff's deputies at the sweep may have given some people the impression that the investigation was a crackdown on illegal immigrants, rather than a code enforcement action. Spanish-speaking deputies acted as translators, and other deputies were there to protect inspectors in case trouble broke out, he said.

"Do we like to displace people out of what they consider their shelter? No," Ware said. "We don't like this appearance of putting people on the street.

"To this day, I disagree with the word 'raid' for what we did," he added. "We went in there, and we were as cordial as we could be under the circumstances."

At a meeting of charitable groups and city officials this week, Many Mansions will propose ways Thousand Oaks can assist displaced tenants, including having social workers on site during sweeps and possibly using city housing money to help people relocate.

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Other social activists suggest that Thousand Oaks consider a similar approach to the one taken by the city of Ventura after winter floods two years ago washed out more than 100 squatters living in a large encampment on the Ventura River bottom.

Ventura's award-winning Homeless Employment Resource Operation, or HERO program, had its share of critics. But it successfully placed more than 70 former river bottom residents in permanent housing, using federal housing vouchers obtained by the city.

"What would be helpful from the Ventura program were the financial resources that were made available," Ingram said.

Councilman Andy Fox, who proposed the slumlord ordinance last week, believes that Thousand Oaks should assist poor people who are left homeless by city sweeps.

But he said there is a limit to what the city can do.

"I don't think you can afford to live in Thousand Oaks for $125 a month," Fox said. "I'm not going to put a square peg in a round hole. It's not that I don't care. You just can't meet everybody's need."

Many residents at the shantytown were living there under a sub-rental scheme in which they were paying $100 or so to other residents to live in metal toolsheds and garages.

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