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Oxnard Performing Arts Center Corporation Executive Director Carolyn Merino Mullin (File photo)
Thursday, December 3, 2020

By Chris Frost




Oxnard-- The story about the upcoming eviction crisis continues with Program Manager/Landlord Engagement Representative Amy Duganne from the Ventura County United Way.


The event, hosted by the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, featured panelists who spoke about the situation and discussed ideas to mitigate the problem.


Duganne said the landlord engagement program started because of a gap in the homeless and housing system. The program incentivizes landlords to increase the number of available units for the county's most vulnerable neighbors experiencing homelessness.


"We have been working with seniors, veterans, families with children, and all of these households experiencing homelessness," she said. "We're trying to increase housing in a market that is unbelievably competitive. You take someone with barriers to housing and is already vulnerable and in a state of trauma. To get that individual housed, it takes a community."


She reiterated that housing is a human right.


"It is the solution to ending homelessness and is what we need in this community," she said. "The crisis we're facing, homelessness, and the housing crisis existed pre-Covid. Right now, the Covid crisis has shown us a couple of things. We can rally in a time of emergency, and the resources become available, and that's terrific. We need more, of course, and we need it to be ongoing."


Covid has exposed, raised awareness, and exacerbated the crisis.


"What we are going to see when the eviction moratoriums are lifted, no one can quite predict the volume, but it's not going to be a wave," Duganne said. "It's going to be a tidal wave. We have not been able to manage our homeless crisis, pre-Covid, and the numbers are going to be staggering."


She reiterated that the influx of people would be daunting.   


"This is going to lead to more households doubling up," she said. "Doubling up during Covid is a recipe for disaster. That's going to exacerbate our health crisis. Not everyone is going to be able to double up, and we'll have an influx of newly homeless."


Mercy House, which runs the homeless shelters in Ventura and Oxnard, has experienced a 40 percent increase in newly homeless people during recent months.


"This is before our eviction moratorium has been lifted," she said. "It is going to take a lot of hard work. Everyone involved, just for scale, our 2020 point in time homeless count resulted in 1,743 homeless, including 1,265 unsheltered people and 478 people sheltered in a homeless shelter or a transitional environment."


She said the number of homeless is typically tripled.


"You take that 1,700 individuals, and you triple that," she said. "That was in 2020. So, we have our work cut out for us. I'm hopeful that those households that are currently subsidized will be able to maintain their housing."


She expects to see a change in the face of homelessness.


"It's something to pay attention to," she said. "Covid has disproportionately impacted black, Latinx, communities. We're going to see that reflected in our flow of the newly homeless."


She said everyone needs to do what it can to mitigate the problem.


"I hope this paints a little bit of the daunting picture," she said.


Oxnard Performing Art Center Executive Director Carolyn Merino Mullin said the OPAC is right in the middle of the homeless situation in Oxnard.


"We take up a two-block city area," she said. "Beyond the theater, we have the community center, and we have Hobson Park East."


She said the area is full of vagrants, encampments, and sometimes they climb over the OPAC fence.


"Sometimes they are with us on campus in the morning," she said. "These are our neighbors. I know their names, and we are on a first-name basis.  How can we be part of that solution?"


During her time in Oxnard, she sees the interconnection between homelessness and vagrancy.


"There is such an impetus to activate downtown," she said. "Our town has a significant homeless population, so how do you change that narrative? That arts have been used as one way. I worked in the arts district in Los Angeles, and it was the arts, creativity, and the hipness that changed that. There can be a harmonious existence between the two. You can have economic development; you can have vibrancy, and it works."


With the pending eviction crisis, Mullin thinks about the artists.


"My partner is an artist, so I know how this hit working artists," she said. "He's a professor of arts in Santa Barbara, but even in the vein of academia, they've been impacted too. As a community center and this cultural anchor in the City of Oxnard, how do we respond to this? I think having these conversations is one way. This got my wheels turning."


Mullin said the group had a conversation with Main Street Architects in Ventura.


"What can we do with our aging facility," she asked. "It needs some love, and it's ripe for opportunity. He (Nick Deitch) was the one who suggested some artist housing, and there is a lot of focus on creating an arts hub. There's been funding set aside.  I was part of the survey and focus group working with artists and arts organizations in the city. If we are creating an arts hub, what does that look like, and what do we need?"


Live Workspace for artists, Mullin said, is one of the things they'll need.


"We have a great space for that, and we can build up," she said. "We have parking lots. There are so many architectural things that can lend itself to this. What exists in this community that we can leverage, and we can nourish, re-reenergize, re-invest in something magnificent?"


CAUSE Policy Advocate Maria Navarro said the grassroots organization focuses on immigrant rights, tenant issues, and rights.


"We understand that the housing crisis has escalated right now to where a lot of tenants are vulnerable to eviction in the coming two years and even more in the near future," she said.  "The pandemic has exposed the housing crisis in California that we are suffering in right now. It's not only in California; it's in the whole United States."


She said the pandemic put the issue into overdrive with the problem of housing affordability.


CAUSE asked their most vulnerable tenants important questions about what they were dealing with before the pandemic hit, and they created the Housing Crisis 805 Report.


"There were 590 surveys of renters in Ventura, and Santa Barbara Counties, done with 185 of the renters living in Oxnard," she said. "We surveyed lower-income and at-risk eviction tenants. We surveyed people from South Oxnard mainly because that's where our base, the people we work with and represent, live."


She showed the audience a snapshot of Ventura County and said the county has a 55 percent rent burden rate compared to 33 percent for homeowners.


"Even then, I think that 33 percent is still unacceptable for homeowners," she said. "Of the renters, 41 percent are Latino. This number drops to 25 percent of homeowners who are Latino. What do we get out of this?"


The report revealed that renters are most likely low-income, Latino, and living with children.


"Back in 2011, we had approximately one-bedroom apartments cost around $1,200, and it has rocketed to approximately $1,800 now," she said. "This means that the median apartment price has grown a lot more than our wages. The wage increase in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties for the last five years increased eight percent, while rents have increased 27 percent."


In 2019, she said the median wage for a domestic worker was $31,427, while the farmworker's median annual pay was $27,083.


"Low wages has been the heart of the housing crisis," Navarro said. "The importance of the living wage is more pronounced here. People earn so little that they can't be self-sufficient unless they go into debt, borrow money, or live with other families. They're forced to live together with other families in homes that are not equipped to house many different families."


Subleasing has become a common practice in the city, which contributes to evictions.


"Combined with the rising cost of rent, Oxnard's most vulnerable communities are evicted because of these issues," she said. "When tenants have to deal with rent issues, they take out money from necessities like food or health. They're forced to do whatever they can with their budget to accommodate the rent increase. It's exasperated by the Covid crisis."


The report was created in 2019, she said, months before the pandemic hit, so the situation is probably worse.


"A lot of these people, once the rent increases, they're forced out of their home and move to another city or county," she said. "It creates a real health crisis with Covid."


This story will continue on Dec. 11.