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Ventura 4th in U. S. for Stockpiling HUD Funds

Grants: City officials blame failure to disperse $3.43 million earmarked for low-income residents on staff turmoil. They plan to use funds in Avenue area.

November 15, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — The city is sitting on millions of dollars of federal money earmarked for low-income residents, enough to put it fourth in the nation on the Department of Housing and Urban Development's list of reluctant spenders.

But city officials blame the backup on staff turmoil--and say they are well on their way to spending nearly all the money on rebuilding some of the aging Ventura Avenue area.

As of October, cities were allowed to have two years' worth of community development money on hand. Ventura had about 3 1/2 years' worth--$3.43 million, according to HUD.

Observers at regional housing organizations say it is wrong to hold on to the money when it could be spent elsewhere and future grants spent on Avenue projects.

"I would say they have an obligation to residents," said Kathleen Allen, outreach coordinator at the Westside Fair Housing Council in Los Angeles. "It's such a big issue nationally to increase affordable units, when people are going without, that for a city to sit on money is unfortunate."

In Ventura County, other stockpiles range from slightly less than two years' worth for Camarillo and the county to a year's worth for Thousand Oaks.

Nationally, Ventura ranks behind only Columbia, Mo., and Sunnyvale and Lakewood in California.

City officials blame an 18-month City Hall retrenchment, when the city's Planning Department was nearly emptied by turnover, increasing the workload on those remaining.

"We've gone through a period of a year or two of rebuilding [in the department], and that has affected timelines," said David Kleitsch, the city's economic development manager. "We'll be off the list by summer."

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In April, the Ventura City Council approved $3.2 million of the HUD block grant money for improvements to The Avenue neighborhood, a largely low-income stretch that has languished since the oil industry began to withdraw in the 1980s.

Projects include some housing refurbishment, storm drain improvement, and putting electrical lines underground.

HUD officials met with the city several months ago to express their concern and create a timeline for spending the money. Now, they say, they are confident that the city will keep its word.

"There's nothing sneaky, bad or untoward here. The money's not being frittered away," said Wayne Itoga, a HUD manager.

But some observers contend that the city considers its low-income residents a low priority, and others question whether the money could have been spent more quickly on projects elsewhere in the city.

"They've been very slow to respond to this problem," said Bill Fulton, a planning expert and former chairman of a committee that considered the city's future. "Basically, HUD beat them up. . . . Now we can see if the reasons they gave are the real reasons" for the delay.

Others point out that the city is choosing to spend the money mostly on infrastructure improvements.

"I think that the city has . . . subscribed to the idea that Ventura has its share already and worries about the magnet effect" of attracting more low-income residents, said Terrie Andrade, deputy director of the city's Housing Authority, which is working on some Avenue-area projects. "We [at the Housing Authority] could spend it really fast."

Some city officials have made no secret of their beliefs that Ventura bears the brunt of homeless services in the county and that the county should take a more regional approach.

In May, City Manager Donna Landeros refused to certify a grant request by Project Understanding for another HUD grant, a move that created a flap in the nonprofit community.

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And some observers wonder if it is right to focus all the money on one neighborhood, when others, like downtown and Montalvo, are also eligible. But backers say The Avenue is clearly the neighborhood that could most use the money.

"Frankly, it's not fair for the west side to monopolize, but we'll take the opportunity for it now," said Lauri Flack, founder of the Westside Community Council. "This part of town has been long, long neglected."

Flack said part of the delay in spending the money came because her group was still assessing its needs and needed to work with the city to iron out issues.

"The ball is finally rolling," she said. "We gave it a real good quick kick."

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