Ventura could have nonprofit housing boom


Ventura could have nonprofit housing boom

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By Kevin Clerici
Ventura County Star
Posted May 8, 2010

Ventura’s Housing Authority is about to go on a building binge.

At a time when for-profit housing builders are grappling with a tight credit market and unsold inventory, the not-for-profit Housing Authority is quietly capitalizing on the real estate collapse, scooping up foreclosed properties and capturing federal stimulus money dedicated to affordable housing.

The public agency, which is independent of the city, views the coming homes as critical to housing low-income families and to its financial future.

With fewer federal dollars flowing in to operate the 60-year-old agency’s current mix of rental housing and rent subsidy programs, the new housing units are at the heart of an ambitious plan to launch programs to generate revenue. They also will make the agency a bigger player in affordable-housing development.

“We feel we’ve made a substantial down payment on this promise,” Harvey Champlin, an agency board member, recently told city leaders.

The authority currently serves more than 5,000 seniors and low-income residents in Ventura. It owns and operates 716 public housing units and administers the Section 8 rent assistance program in the city. There is a strong demand for services, as evidenced by a waiting list of more than 4,000 applicants for public housing and vouchers.

The agency’s plans include:

– The 12-unit Soho Apartments for low-income families at 1150 N. Ventura Ave. Construction is scheduled to begin in days and be completed by August 2011.

– The 37-unit, two- and three-bedroom Encanto Del Mar Apartments for low-income families, downtown at 351 E. Thompson Blvd. Construction could begin by year’s end on the foreclosed site the agency purchased last year with money from a $9.5 million state housing grant. In addition to the apartments, some 20,000 square feet of office space would be constructed and become the authority’s headquarters.

– The 25-unit, single-bedroom Courtyards apartments at 3005 E. Main St. in midtown, reserved for adults with mental, developmental or physical abilities. In collaboration with Partners in Housing, the authority is seeking state tax credits and Mental Health Services Act funds to complete financing, with construction tentatively scheduled to begin in September 2011.

– Some two dozen apartments reserved for farmworkers at the southeast corner of Telegraph Road and Saticoy Avenue in east Ventura. The apartments would be built on donated land that has been controlled by the University of California since Thelma Hansen, the sole survivor of a longtime Ventura County farming family, died in 1992. The university plans to sell an adjoining parcel and housing entitlements to a developer to construct homes, with proceeds going to the Hansen Agricultural Learning Center at Faulkner Farm in Santa Paula.

– The biggest project on the agency’s slate is the Westview neighborhood, a major tearing down and rebuilding of some 180 aging public housing units it owns on and around Riverside Street in the city’s west end.

To be completed in phases over the next decade, the plan of the agency is to roughly double the number of units to about 360 in a modern and more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. The agency has collaborated with residents on the layout. Some would have to be temporarily relocated during demolition and construction of the first phase, likely beginning in 2012.

“It would greatly expand our offerings,” said agency Executive Director Ed Moses.

Building site bargains

Several big-money housing plans in Ventura never got off the ground as a result of the real estate collapse, leaving some valuable properties covered by weeds and available at cut-rate prices.

The highly visible corner lot at 351 Thompson Blvd., for instance, was reclaimed by a bank and scooped up by the agency for $1 million using federal stimulus funds it was awarded, Moses said.

Because the authority began positioning itself a couple years ago to do more housing development and brought on experienced staff, Moses said, it has been able to capture federal stimulus funds and affordable-housing grants and to apply for state tax credits to pencil out its various projects.

It’s a major turnaround for the agency, which has had its finances questioned in recent years and continues to grapple with declining federal subsidies — something that has plagued housing authorities nationwide.

But with success comes scrutiny.

Because affordable-housing projects don’t pay traditional property taxes, City Councilwoman Christy Weir has expressed concern about the increasing demands for city services that comes with the developments, while the city grapples with dwindling revenue.

Fee waiver to get review

Since the 1970s, the authority has paid special annual fees to cover its use of municipal services such as water and sewage. The money was to be split among the city, county and Ventura Unified School District, but the city has the legal authority to waive the payments for all.

In 2008, the City Council agreed to absolve the authority of three years of missed payments to the city, school district and county totaling nearly $700,000. Future payments, the council decided, would go to a housing trust fund controlled by the Housing Authority to help fund new units.

But now that the agency is flush, Weir wants the annual fees restored, as do other downtown advocates. At a council finance subcommittee meeting last week, Weir and Councilman Jim Monahan voted to have the full council reconsider the current policy in coming weeks. The subcommittee’s third member, Councilman Neal Andrews, was opposed. Andrews, a vocal proponent of affordable housing, praised the authority for its work and partnership with the city. He feels diverting the money would undermine that relationship.

“We all agree there is a need for affordable housing,” he said. “I think we need to be consistent and true to our partnership.”

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