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Residents Wary of La Colonia Reconstruction

Many in The Courts in Oxnard welcome the overdue restoration but not the addition of 300 new residences to help pay for it.

June 03, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

There is little disagreement that Oxnard's oldest and largest public housing project has seen better days.

But when a housing official appeared last week at a La Colonia Neighborhood Council meeting to talk up a plan to raze the crumbling collection of duplexes and rebuild from scratch, some residents were seeing red.

Officials have set out to reconstruct The Courts, a 260-unit complex laid out half a century ago in horseshoe-shaped strips on the eastern edge of the cramped, working-class community.

To pull it off, the city's housing authority has tapped an Orange County development team to replace the existing units and build an additional 300 apartments and single-family homes at the 29-acre site. The additional units will make up a private development that will help pay for the $51-million reconstruction project. Housing officials say the current site is underutilized. The property accommodates nine units an acre, but is zoned for 18.

Residents last week said they welcomed restoration of The Courts. But some balked at the prospect of doubling the density at the site, fearful that the influx of new residents would overburden schools, roads and other public services.

"We are not in agreement with what you want to do," said Francisco Moreno, 71, who has lived in The Courts for more than two decades. "You will create many problems for our community by building so many houses."

That sentiment bubbles up often in La Colonia, one of the densest pockets in one of California's most crowded cities. An estimated 9,500 people live in the one-square-mile community, a largely Latino enclave built in the 1800s to house Oxnard's Mexican workforce.

Residents note that more than half of the city's 740 public housing units are in La Colonia. And while acknowledging the necessity for more housing citywide, they question the need for more of it in La Colonia.

"I think we've done our fair share," said Vicky Gonzales, a lifelong La Colonia resident and vice chairwoman of the local Neighborhood Council. "I appreciate the effort to want to beautify everything, but to me what they are proposing is just too much."

The reconstruction is part of a larger effort to beautify public housing throughout Oxnard.

In La Colonia alone, housing officials in the last five years have orchestrated renovation of 100 public housing units near Felicia Court. And renovation is underway on 70 units along Colonia Road, where workers are gutting apartments and putting up bigger, better-looking ones in their place.

The Courts presented a special problem, however.

Constructed out of an inferior concrete and plagued now with rust, mold and mildew, the 260 units have become in desperate need of repair, with no money to do the job. Moreover, the public housing is in such a state of decay that it would cost three times as much to renovate the project than it would to tear it down and rebuild, said Larry White, manager of the reconstruction effort.

Officials set out more than two years ago to find a way to pay for the lion's share of the reconstruction. In April, the Oxnard Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners chose Steadfast Properties Development Co. of Newport Beach and Fieldstone Communities Inc. of Irvine to spearhead the project.

Steadfast will knock down and rebuild the 260 public housing units, erect a new community center and build an additional 200 private apartment units at the site. Plans call for two-story apartments at the site. In addition, the city will sell a portion of the 29 acres to Fieldstone so it can build 100 for-sale homes.

Money generated by the property sale and apartment rents would help defray the costs of rebuilding the public housing, White said.

"I think ultimately it's good for everybody," White said. "We are providing new public housing units for our residents, and we are providing additional needed housing for residents in our city, which is in short supply."

Officials hope to break ground by the middle of next year and the project is expected to be completed in 2009. The project's 858 residents would be temporarily relocated and returned as units are completed. As with all of Oxnard's public housing, tenants would continue to pay 30% of their income toward rent.

"I certainly understand the residents' concerns, but in order to do the renovation we need money," said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, who grew up in La Colonia and serves as chairman of the city's housing commission. "Everything is based on how much money we can generate so that we can improve the living situation for people in that community."

That is the message White and representatives of Steadfast Properties took to the Neighborhood Council in La Colonia last week, saying they wanted to work with residents on the project.

They got an earful. On the private development, residents questioned the number of units that would be earmarked for low-income residents, noting that only 10 of the 100 single-family homes and 40 of the 200 new apartments would be made affordable. Some called for the sale of the new houses to be limited to first-time home buyers to prevent the residences from being turned into investment properties.

And there was wide support for the city to prepare an environmental impact report for the project, even though White assured residents that planning officials had said such an in-depth review would not be necessary.

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