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Crowded Living in California's Open Spaces


LOST HILLS, Calif. — This agricultural outpost in the lower San Joaquin Valley has no city hall, no municipal police force, no street lights and no benches in the park for young lovers on hot summer nights.

One thing it does have in surplus is people. Per household, this dusty spot on the map 40 miles northwest of Bakersfield is the most crowded community in California. An average of 5.6 people live in every tumbledown bungalow and rusting mobile home in town.

Of course, that's just an average. "There's three families in there," said Rafaela Tijerina, pointing at a pink-and-white double-wide fronted by a bare dirt lot. "Fifteen people."

Tijerina is at the wheel of her minivan. Outside, a shriveled community of about 2,000 unfolds along a series of treeless, unpaved streets plopped down in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the world. A grass-roots activist who has made this castaway place home for most of her 60 years, she points at a neat little house with a white picket fence around one of the few green lawns. "There's 20 people in there," she said. "In summer, it's worse."

What makes Lost Hills significant is not just that it is crowded, or that the feisty Tijerina is fighting for its future, but that the demographic bomb detonating here is exploding all over rural California. Though most people might imagine teeming urban centers such as southeast Los Angeles and San Francisco's Chinatown when they think of overcrowding, an analysis of the 2000 Census shows that the most crowded places more often are desolate little towns like this one.

Whether it's Pajaro near Salinas, Greenfield south of Monterey, Mecca east of Palm Springs or Richgrove south of Fresno, these communities share a common plight: They are packed, poor and populated by Latino farm workers, many of them first-generation immigrants grasping at the bottom rung of California's economic ladder.

"If people knew about this they'd be shocked," said Mark Brown, an official with California Rural Legal Assistance, an advocacy group for farm workers.

Everyone who's been paying attention knows there's a housing crisis throughout California. But in these far-flung farm communities, some of which--like Lost Hills--are not even incorporated, the crisis is more immediate. Not only is there a lack of housing, but the existing homes--even crumbling, ticky-tack shacks that in past generations sheltered a single family--are unaffordable unless people double and triple up.

"You can find pockets throughout the state," said Brown. "These are Third World conditions."

According to experts, what's driving this rural population boom is a combination of factors, from a revolution in farming practices to a perception by poor immigrants that compared with gang- and drug-infested inner-city neighborhoods, even end-of-the-road farm hamlets are preferable. Another cause is the closure of private labor camps because of tougher enforcement of housing codes. The goal was to make things better, but the crackdown has forced laborers from overcrowded camps into overcrowded towns.

Not all the news is bad. The infusion of Latino immigrants has helped save some communities that were on their way to extinction.

"People tend to see these places as dead-end labor camps," said Juan-Vicente Palerm, a UC Santa Barbara professor who has studied the changes occurring in rural California. "But these are real places. You see immigrants becoming merchants and being elected to the city councils. There's a revolution going on in rural California."

Crowding Grows in Last Decade

But you also continue to see too many people trying to crowd themselves into too small an area. Crowding in California doubled between 1980 and 1990, said Brown, due in part to passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized millions of migrants and encouraged them to settle. Census figures show that crowding in rural areas continued to rise in the last decade, even as the government increased border surveillance.

Across the Pajaro River from Watsonville, the Monterey County community of Pajaro is 15% more dense than in 1990.

Schools Supt. John Casey said half his students speak limited English. Many families are in need: The district established a dental-care program after many students showed up for class with abscessed teeth.

Down the road in Greenfield, the county has been trying to address the problem by building more housing. They still can't keep up, said Randy Anstein, the city manager.

"We could increase the housing stock two or three times and you'd still have people in garages," he said.

Greenfield is a city of about 13,000 just off U.S. 101. Many other crowded communities straddle important transportation routes. Lost Hills is three miles west of Interstate 5.

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