August 1, 2003 - From the August, 2003 issue

Ventura's Looming Housing Shortage Necessitates Electeds Grapple with Restrictive Laws & State Pressure

Ventura County, once considered a bastion of reasonably priced housing and open space, is increasingly facing growth pressures and rising housing costs. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, in which she discusses her county's struggle to encourage smart growth and the construction of low and moderate income housing.


Kathy Long

With the equivalent of two Chicagos being added to the population of the Los Angeles/Ventura basin in the next 20 years, how does Ventura County balance legislative demands for more housing with constituent demands for ensuring that there be no diminution in their quality of life?

Well, we work on it day to day. We actually have been successful at organizing some regional consortia and conferences that focus on the need for housing in this county, the diversity of housing that's needed, and the housing that's needed for the workforce. With agriculture being our number one industry, we have a great need for low income and farm worker housing. We have a very active group of stakeholders called HOME -- Housing Opportunities Made Easier. In addition, an effort has been underway for a little over a year to educate the public about the need, and the tools and options that are available to meet that need. Of course, most of those are dealing with higher density, redevelopment, and infill. Because of our support for our agricultural industry and also the need to protect some open space, all of the development in our county has gone into our ten cities.

We have these wonderful vast open space areas that are still designated as farm and/or open space. That puts even more pressure on the cities. As the cities have been redoing their general plans and trying to balance the state housing element demand for housing, the cost of housing has escalated to a critical stage. Unfortunately, there has been little development of multiple-unit housing complexes because of contract defect laws and other issues. So, at this point, we are working regionally with stakeholder groups, educating the public, and trying to identify financing tools that will help us develop a greater diversity of housing. One of the things I'm carrying into the board is a letter that will suggest a partnership with a consortium in Santa Barbara that looks at first-time homebuyer assistance for county employees. We are already finding it very difficult to recruit county employees, particularly at middle management and upper management levels, because of the cost of housing here.

How does Ventura County keep from having the same home affordability problems that Santa Barbara has experienced? What's the strategy for increasing housing supply?

At this point, there is not a collective strategy because Ventura is the first city within the county that has really seen the impact. They are working on it. They have very active neighborhood groups, and their council leadership formed a housing focus to come up with some solutions. As I've mentioned already, the familiar mantras are higher density, infill, and redevelopment. Because voter initiatives have wrapped all of the cities with curb limits, we must work within those restrictive parameters.

In your opinion, who has the credibility with the public to lead an educational campaign about the need for workforce housing in the county? Does it have to be the elected officials? Or, are there other stakeholders that can sustain such a civic campaign?

It's both. We have some strong business leaders in this county who have stepped forward. For example, Mike McGuire of Affinity Bank serves on a non-profit housing board for Cabrillo Economic, and he is very much a spokesperson for the great need and the toolbox that we must look at and/or develop for the solutions. It cannot just be elected leaders. We have to have public engagement so that they grasp what the balance is between their desire to have curb limits and the need for workforce housing.

Does the development community lack the credibility to be a part of such an effort?

No, the development community is right at the table. In the HOME coalition, we have developers both on the steering committee and on the advisory committee. The nonprofit Cabrillo and others also have developers. Developers are still viewed by many as having suspect intentions. But as people start to hear about, read about, and realize the escalated cost of housing, I believe we will reach a point at which everyone will have to abandon that perception and deal with the reality.

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How does pressure from the state, via it's housing element for local governments, play itself out in Ventura? Is there presently an adversarial relationship with the state or a collaborative one re housing production?

The relationship with the state with regard to the housing element has been adversarial. In fact, two cities have filed litigation with the state agency against the housing element challenging their numbers. We will have to be able to look at the goals for smart growth and the desire of communities to address the issues of traffic and density, yet balance that with the desire to have some open space and quality of life. As a region, Ventura is ahead of most counties, and we have been historically because of our standard agreements for development going into cities and for greenbelts between cities. Today's challenge is how to protect that and make it work with the housing demands that are out there. The state housing element was based on what I believe to be archaic thinking in the sense of not looking at the new urbanism desires of people to be able to address the negative impacts of sprawl or growth related to traffic, air quality, distance from work, etc. So, I would hope that there is some work to come out of Sacramento that would list quality of life as a priority for regional planning.

TPR recently interviewed the Community Development Director of Camarillo-a city, which by vote of the public, is only allowed to produce or permit 400 units of housing per year. With housing demand in Camarillo obviously much greater than 400 units, what's the likely consequence of public policies which concentrate development in urban areas but severely limit the number of units which can be built legally?

Well, we're seeing it already just in our own recruitment. When we look at the succession planning for management in an organization of 8,000 employees, there could be a lot of different human resource impacts of the inability to recruit outside the county and bring in leadership. You have to put more emphasis-and maybe this is not such a bad thing-on creating the leadership and moving up the career ladder within the existing county family. Those who are here have already adjusted to the challenges of living here.

TPR also interviewed building industry officials who assert that housing developers are not given enough attention or credit by the public and public officials. They also contend that the industry hasn't been asked to provide leadership re housing production policy and regulation in the state. Is that a fair statement?

It probably is a fair statement in the sense that they historically have been considered as suspects rather than as stakeholders. They've made great strides just in the last few years as the urban sprawl tagline has hit the front page because they have been willing to sit at the table and engage with stakeholders in the dialogue. So, they're certainly at the table in our HOME committee, in the forums we put on, and in our dialogue in this county. Today, the upper levels of elected leadership and business leadership understand what the BIA's role is in helping to work through issues of regulatory barriers, contract defect laws, etc that have prevented the issuance of permits for multiple units. Obviously, that's one of the significant models that we must have to meet the housing demand.

Given that new housing post-Prop 13 doesn't really pencil out for local governments, how will the state's present financial crisis and political paralysis affect the willingness of local jurisdictions to be more open to new housing?

Well, I think it's a complete failure of leadership and responsibility. The first charge of government is to have the ability to bring in a budget and put the taxpayers dollars in a balanced revenue and expenditure plan that meets the needs of the citizens. It's very frustrating for local government. This whole relationship between the state is just beyond acceptance. We cannot continue this model much longer. No one wants to say the word bankrupt, but the state is about as bankrupt both in leadership and responsibility as any state in this nation.

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