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Suit-Able Housing

Litigation Over Slum Conditions Could Lead to New Homes for Farm Laborers


OXNARD — The little community off Hueneme Road is just a timeworn collection of battered shanties done in by decay and neglect.

But Salvador Ferreira, a 35-year-old strawberry picker who moved out of the 1930s-era housing compound three years ago, knows that is about to change.

His life will, too.

As a result of a three-year legal battle and subsequent settlement brokered earlier this year, plans are underway to raze the 21 ramshackle houses on the south Oxnard property and build a community of single-family homes and apartments exclusively for farm workers and dedicated to the late labor leader Cesar Chavez.

"It's like a dream come true," said Ferreira, one of eight former tenants who filed a lawsuit in 1997 seeking reimbursement of rent and other damages from the property owner because the units were not properly maintained.

After winning a judgment totaling nearly $400,000, the tenants reached an out-of-court settlement in March, in which they each received $10,000 and the land was sold at a cut rate to Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit builder of affordable housing.

"I look at what has happened and it's like something impossible," Ferreira said. "We will have housing not only for ourselves but for other farm-worker families in need."

As currently envisioned, Villa Cesar Chavez will consist of six single-family homes and 52 townhouse apartments. The homes will be sold at reduced prices to Ferreira and some of the other plaintiffs, transforming many of them into first-time homeowners, while the apartments will be rented to local farm-worker families.

That is a far cry from when Ferreira and others lived at the property, a time when raw sewage flowed from broken pipes, rain leaked into the small wooden houses and rats and cockroaches had their way with the place.

Farm-worker advocates say the new project will help chip away at the desperate need for affordable housing in Ventura County, especially among field laborers who often find themselves dangling from the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Moreover, they say the legal victory could help shed light on the abysmal conditions under which laborers often are forced to live, while drawing attention to the need to create better housing opportunities for farm-worker families.

So impressed were members of Cesar Chavez's family at how the housing was created and the many people it would serve that they readily agreed to lend his name to the project. It was the first time since the 1993 death of the United Farm Workers union founder that such permission has been granted for a housing project.

"Cesar worked for over 30 years to improve the working and living conditions of farm workers and their families," said Andres Irlando, executive director of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. "This new development is a fitting tribute to his legacy."

Residents Battle for Repairs

The tenants on Hueneme Road didn't set out to pay tribute to anyone.

All they wanted were repairs made to the weather-beaten shanties, set on a muddy compound bordered by a rusted pair of railroad tracks and industrial buildings, less than a mile from Ormond Beach.

The encampment was slapped up six decades ago to house the area's burgeoning immigrant farm labor force and remained a settlement for that population over the decades. Its low rents and proximity to the fields drew Alfonso Villegas and his family in 1989.

The 36-year-old pesticide applicator said that although his one-bedroom unit was in poor shape when he moved in, and little maintenance occurred during the time he was there, rent was only $400 a month. That had plenty of appeal to the father of six.

According to court records and an interview with Villegas, the owner of the property--HR Inc., owned by Larry and Pauline Rodarte--routinely ignored complaints about plugged sewer lines, leaky roofs and faulty wiring.

Villegas said he complained several times to the landlord and the property manager about broken windows and rotted floorboards and backed-up sinks and toilets. He said wind and rain seeped into his unit through the roof and windows and that rainwater formed large pools in common areas and underneath the houses, which sat on concrete blocks about a foot off the ground.

Moisture and mildew were ever present, Villegas said, ruining clothing, bedding and other personal items. Mounds of trash and discarded furniture around the perimeter of the property were a breeding ground for rats and other vermin.

"We would ask for these problems to be fixed, but the landlord would say it was our problem," said Villegas, adding that tenants took to calling the place "Little Tijuana."

Fed up with the lack of response, Villegas wrote a letter in July 1996 to the Rodartes formally asking them to make repairs. He also sent a letter to Oxnard code enforcement officials, who inspected the property and cited the landlord a few months later for several code violations.

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