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Cities Fight Bid for More Low-Income Housing

Building: Santa Paula, Oxnard and Fillmore say they have more than their share of poor residents and adding affordable units would perpetuate problems.


Ventura County's three poorest cities are appealing a recent decision by a regional planning agency that requires them to build nearly as much new housing for low-income people as richer cities with far fewer affordable dwellings.

Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore argue that they already have far more than their share of Ventura County's low-priced housing--at least twice as much as most local cities--and that building more perpetuates problems often found in poor neighborhoods.

But a committee from the Southern California Assn. of Governments--acting on behalf of the state housing department--recently rejected the cities' requests to cut the number of low-income dwellings they must build by 2005.

As things stand, about one-third of the 5,000 dwellings planned for those cities must be affordable for lower-income residents. That could thwart city efforts to build upscale housing and increase tax revenues.

City officials say they will appeal the committee's April 26 decision to the full 73-member SCAG board in Los Angeles, if necessary. That agency oversees regional planning for all of Southern California except San Diego County.

"I know we're going to appeal all the way through the process, then I guess we'll go to court," Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said. "Low-income housing is everybody's burden, and I think everybody should share in it equally. But they want the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer. They want to perpetuate the status quo."

Residents of Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore--mostly Latino communities with large numbers of farm workers and immigrants--have incomes just two-thirds of the county average.

But while poorer cities argue that they are already providing low-income housing and now want to attract more affluent residents, richer cities say they don't like artificial rules that force them to build too much low-income housing that taxpayers have to subsidize.


"We want to do our part," Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell said. "But we don't want to be penalized for our demographics and the quality of life which exists in our community."

Jacob Lieb, a senior planner for SCAG, said the agency's goal is the same as the complaining Ventura County municipalities': to spread the lower-income housing among all of Southern California's cities and counties.

"So their contentions are well-taken and we're sensitive to them," he said. "But it's a difficult undertaking to strike that balance in just the right place."

Policies adopted by SCAG call for more low-income housing in cities where little exists and a lesser percentage in communities already burdened by an abundance of cheaper housing, he said. The problem is that no community really wants to provide more affordable housing because it doesn't pay for itself from a tax standpoint.

"It's not isolated to Ventura County," Lieb said. "Around the region, jurisdictions have all claimed that their share is too high."

Throughout Southern California, about 39% of dwellings are considered affordable for low- and very low-income people.

In Ventura County, about 33% of dwellings are in those categories--averaging about 21% in the affluent east county and about 45% in the less-prosperous west county.

In Ventura County, a family of four is classified as very low income if it earns less than $32,650 a year and considered low income if it makes no more than $47,800. Dwellings are considered affordable if a family spends no more than 30% of its income on rent or no more than three times its annual income to buy.

The issue of how much low-income housing a city should build is pressing because the state Department of Housing and Community Development is requiring cities to revise the so-called housing element of their general plan for development.

The process began in 1998, and the housing allocations now being imposed on cities reflect the number and type of dwellings to be built from 1998 to 2005. If cities don't abide by those allocations, the state could refuse to certify the housing plans, opening cities up to lawsuits by developers.

In Southern California, the total number of new dwellings is about 500,000. In Ventura County, it is nearly 20,000. Those projections are based mostly on the growth estimates provided by the cities and counties.

But problems arise when trying to provide enough housing for low-income people.

"It's a volatile, heated subject," said Nancy Settle, manager of regional projects for the Ventura County Planning Department. "Nobody likes it because it's a little bit of social engineering. [SCAG] has tried to nudge the jurisdictions a little closer toward what they call regional balance."

Among Ventura County's 10 cities, officials in Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore think that they may have come out the worst.

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