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City Manager Alex Nguyen (Photo courtesy City of Oxnard)
Wednesday, October 27, 2021

By Chris Frost

Tri County Sentry


Oxnard-- The 2021 Ventura County Housing Reimagined Conference, Wednesday, October 20, revealed lots of challenges in the state but also marked some progress moving forward.


Challenges on the table include income gaps and the lack of affordable housing that forces families to live together to meet the high rent. 


Ventura County Supervisor Carmen Ramirez was the Keynote Speaker and told the crowd that she's been working on housing issues for her entire legal career.


"We spent our time trying to save people from the abyss of homelessness or a disaster for their family," she said. "I think it's relevant today to get a real sense of what it is like, the trauma of suddenly not being able to continue living in your home. Whether it's a home you owned and fell into default with your mortgage because of circumstances, or it's your rental that maybe wasn't the best place to live, but it was home; then suddenly, the owner, whether it's corporate, individual or mom and pop decide they have other plans for it. What you have to do to try and stay there or find another place where you can take your children who are in school, and you are going to have to disrupt all that."


She said one of her first cases was about a home that looked nice on the outside, but there were problems throughout the inside.


"It was owned by a landscaper who had beautiful properties everywhere, and he fit the definition, which his attorney provided," she said. "He said my client is not a slum lord, and I said that is the word I am looking for. Thank you for speaking it. The people there decided they weren't going to pay rent anymore until this gentleman brought his property up to the standards of California habitability, which is 1942.5 of the California Civil Code, which says it doesn't have to be beautiful, but you have to have running water, electricity that works and doesn't electrocute you or your children. The roof can't leak, there have to be screens on the walls. The plumbing has to work, and there have to be adequate receptacles for trash."


She said the people went on a six-month rent strike and got eviction notices.


"We went to court to defend, and we won," she said. 


Ramirez closed by saying that she looked forward to working with everybody.


"If we don't all thrive, people are going to suffer one way or another," she said.


The group held a panel and discussed state versus local jurisdiction featuring Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen, Thousand Oaks City Manager Andrew Powers, Santa Paula Planning Manager Jeff Mitchem, and Ramirez.


Moderator Carl Morehouse said there was a "fair amount" of housing legislation this past year, and it seems to be bubbling up from a level of frustration with the state and what's going on in local jurisdictions.


"I think it's kind of funny that the City of Ventura is going through its general plan update right now, and we're very active," he said. "It's almost been 15 years, and I have a whole bunch of paperwork my wife would like to get rid of, and it's funny because we were saying the same thing 20 years ago."


City Manager Alex Nguyen led the panel off and quoted a former boss from 20 years ago who said if there is one thing progressive Californians hate more than suburban sprawl, it's urban density.


"He said that 20 years ago, and here we are," he said. "We're in a situation that is the making of our collective hypocrisy. If you think for a moment about science fiction stories or movies that depict the earth of the future, it's either apocalyptic, and no one is around, or it's extremely dense housing. There's no science fiction version of suburban sprawl or flat urbanism."


In California, he said they've been stubborn about keeping single-family housing, yards, and spread.


"We have not on the housing front worked towards the same goals we want for climate action planning," he said. "In terms of the driving forces, the bottom line is collectively, cities have failed. If you ask the question over the last several decades, can local leaders be trusted to produce the housing that California needs, and the answer is no over the past several decades."


He said they've underproduced in the housing category by millions of units in the last 15 years.


"There's also this larger issue that Carmen (Ramirez) raised about the huge gap between wages and the cost of housing," Nguyen said. "So in Southern California alone, the gap has grown so large; it's like Mount Everest. Very few people or families can scale that gap. It's just not possible. That's a larger issue out there that we have to contend with."


He said regardless of the community, Oxnard has done a great job in producing housing.


"We get saddled with large numbers for the RHNA Cycles (Regional Housing Needs Assessment), but we've done a good job, but there is still NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), even here in Oxnard. When I propose a seven-story building downtown, I'm accused of putting a high-rise downtown."


He said that in terms of the state taking away the funding for redevelopment through housing, that was the second-largest source of affordable housing funding in California after the feds.


"That was taken away and not ever actually replaced," he said. "That's a problem; we'll talk about CEQA later, but CEQA adds its own challenges."


As a city manager, he said the taxing structure in California makes it "nearly impossible" for cities to continue providing all the municipal services necessary for all the housing the state needs.


"There's a fundamental problem there as well," he said.


Powers was glad to be talking about such an important topic.


"I echo a lot of Alex's frustrations around the challenges we all face," Powers said. "I think Ventura County is incredibly well-poised in this particular moment. In Thousand Oaks, we talk a lot about the balance between jobs, housing, and the environment, and you can really extrapolate that out to broader Ventura County and recognize that we've done an amazing job in the environment here, and it's one of the reasons it is such a desirable place to be."


He said Thousand Oaks is doing an increasingly good job on the jobs front between investments in the agriculture industry and manufacturing industry.


"But if you look on the west county with the trade desk and high tech investment that's happening there," he said. When you look in the east county, and really a renaissance and biotechnology investment creating a future jobs basis for us, we're doing a fantastic job in creating a new jobs economy."


Powers said the housing front is lagging.


"I think you're seeing that change," he said. "I reside in Ventura and spend my professional life in Thousand Oaks, so I drive a lot of this county very frequently. You see, as Supervisor Ramirez said, a lot of sticks coming out of the ground in a lot of different places.  You see a lot of quality investment that's happening both on the commercial side and the residential side. We're really at a turning point, and I really try to focus on where we really are today and where we're going forward. I'm very hopeful with general plan updates happening across most of the cities in the county as they additional state mandates and other things. There are investments happening in all the right places."


This story will continue on November 5.