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Thousand Oaks Faces Problem of Affordable Homes


THOUSAND OAKS — The lack of affordable housing for people laboring in the burgeoning service industries has spawned a new kind of migrant worker--people employed in suburban Thousand Oaks who can't find a place to live here.

"When this community began in the 1960s, people lived here and commuted out; at that time you might have called us a bedroom community, but that's changed," said senior city planner Lawrence Marquart.

Instead, Thousand Oaks has become something of an economic hub, with workers driving in for jobs at shopping malls, office buildings and restaurants scattered around the city, according to a yearlong housing study that will be presented to the City Council tonight.

The study, required by the state, also discovered that an increasing number of younger workers are commuting to Thousand Oaks from western Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley.

The employment gains, coupled with the housing shortage, could contribute to such countywide headaches as traffic jams on the Ventura Freeway and increased air pollution.

"Not everyone can afford--or wants--a four-bedroom house on a half-acre lot," City Councilman Andy Fox said. "You need housing that people who provide services can live in. You need a certain amount of reasonable rentals so people can live where they work."

The dearth of affordable housing became an issue last spring when city inspectors uncovered a shantytown of migrant workers living in garages and tin sheds in the shadow of the Civic Arts Plaza.

But the latest study indicates that these poorer residents are not the only ones shut out of the Thousand Oaks housing market.

"When we're talking affordable housing for low-income people, we're not talking about welfare recipients," said Dan Hardy, executive director of Many Mansions Inc., a nonprofit group that provides low-cost housing.

For example, according to state guidelines, single people are considered low-income if they make as much as $25,680 a year--a good salary, but not enough to pay rent in upscale Thousand Oaks, where an average one-bedroom apartment goes for $775 a month, Hardy said.

And according to 1995 State Employment Development Department statistics, 75% of the Thousand Oaks labor market is in the service industry, where the average salary runs $26,755, or in retail trade, where the average is $16,708.

"People who work here can't afford to live here," Hardy said. "My feeling is we should be sharing more with the people who are serving us." His agency has a package of proposals on affordable housing before the City Council.

One major obstacle to finding more affordable housing in this well-planned city is that it's nearly built out. Concerns about suburban sprawl in the 1970s, when the city's population more than doubled in 10 years, led to curbed growth and an embrace of open space.

"We need places to live for entry-level teachers and entry-level professionals," Fox said, "but if it means more of an influx of new development, I wouldn't be supportive of that."

The answer to the housing shortage, Fox said, lies not in more developments, but in work being done by Many Mansions. The 19-year-old organization has made its mark by acquiring blighted properties and renovating them into clean, affordable housing.

Hardy agrees with the city's slow-growth attitudes, but he said there are only so many crime-ridden complexes that his organization can turn around on its budget.

The city's redevelopment agency earmarks more than $2 million a year for affordable housing projects, but federal housing cutbacks have made the job tougher for organizations such as Many Mansions.

In an effort to alleviate the affordable housing shortage, the City Council tonight will be asked to approve a number of recommendations from Many Mansions.

To that end, the council will also be asked to provide as much as $2.7 million so that Many Mansions can purchase the blighted Island Village apartments and convert all 80 apartments into housing for very-low- to low-income people.

While recognizing the need for more housing, Fox said, the trick is not to go overboard.

"We have a real need for affordable housing, but it needs to be for the residents of Thousand Oaks," he said. "We don't need to become the affordable housing capital of Ventura County."

Gammon is a Times correspondent and Folmar is a staff writer.

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