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Desert agencies find some affordable housing solutions

September 8, 2014

Dominique Fong, The Desert Sun 4:48 p.m. PDT September 8, 2014

 

Esteban Gutierrez immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico as an 18-year-old immigrant. After 32 years of laboring in the Coachella Valley he will finally reached his "American Dream" of owning a home with the help of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. In this photo, Esteban, second from left, stand with part of his family. from far right is sons Salvador Gutierrez, Steven Gutierrez, Wife Margarita Valente, Esteban Gutierrez and Felipe Gutierrez. (Photo: J. Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun )Buy Photo

 

The hot afternoon sun beat down on a row of half-built houses. Near the center of the street, in dusty Lot #38, Esteban Gutierrez climbed a ladder and drilled screws into the wall of what will soon be his very first home.

For many years, the 50-year-old was always on the move. Wherever his agricultural job took him in the Coachella Valley and beyond, he went. As did his wife and their 11 children. Eventually, Gutierrez ended up in Thermal, where he now lives. But his dream was to own a home. That's expected to happen by the end of the year in Coachella with the help of the Indio-based Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.

Finally, Gutierrez keeps saying to himself. Finally.

 

Affordability: Building

Gutierrez is among many low-income residents in the eastern Coachella Valley who struggle to afford places to rent and own. Many live in east valley trailer parks or subsidized apartments and homes.

Despite the efforts of the nonprofit housing coalition to provide affordable homes to low-income residents, the waiting list is long. About 17,000 names are on the list, with about 6,000 that are active, said John Mealey, the group's executive director.

"There's a big, big demand," he said. "It'll always be that way."

Esteban Gutierrez immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico as an 18-year-old immigrant. After 32 years of laboring in the Coachella Valley he will finally reached his American Dream of owning a home through with the help of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.  (Photo: J. Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun )

Most Coachella Valley jobs earn less than the Riverside County median income of $60,700. In 2012, government and utilities workers made more than $66,000, according to a 2013 report from the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, a Palm Springs nonprofit charged with boosting and diversifying the local economy. Agricultural, retail and hospitality jobs paid $30,000 or less. But those three low-paying industries combined make up half the total jobs in the desert economy.  Faced with growing populations here and no more redevelopment money, some city officials and developers are challenged in finding permanent housing for the valley's poorest individuals and families. By law, cities must explain to the state how they are providing enough affordable housing.

 

MORE ONLINE: Affordability in the Desert

But city officials say they are now without a crucial arm of financing. A fifth of the tax increment revenue generated under redevelopment agencies was once set aside for affordable housing. The state eliminated those agencies in 2011. Many housing projects that relied on that redevelopment funding have been stalled.

Palm Desert was one of the more aggressive cities to build affordable housing. Currently there are about 1,800 affordable housing rental and for-sale units, with another 72 apartments on the way at the Carlos Ortegas Villas that broke ground in mid-August.

But the 14-unit Sagecrest Apartments with one- and two-bedroom units slated for renovations has been placed on hold. So have the Desert Pointe apartments, and other plans to transform apartment complexes into affordable units and build two new multifamily buildings. And from 2006 to 2013, no developers applied for public funding to build affordable housing projects in the city.

"Funding is still questioned after the dissolution of (redevelopment agencies)," said Janet Moore, Palm Desert's housing director. "The one thing that we are doing is being mindful of our overall planning of the city, that we are varying housing types and varying pricing for families to live here. That often includes affordable housing."

 

Low values a boon

Plunging land values during the recession were a boon for the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. The Indio nonprofit developer helps low-income families become first-time homeowners through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Mutual Self-Help housing program. Groups of families contribute 60 percent of the manual labor on home construction as a form of down payment. Subcontractors install the heating, air conditioning, plumbing, dry wall and stucco.

When the real estate market crashed, some private developers offered pieces of abandoned, half-built subdivisions for sale at rock-bottom prices. At the height of the boom, improved lots cost more than $100,000. At the bottom, prices sunk to $20,000.

Suddenly, for the nonprofit, east valley land was much more affordable.

 

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In 2008, the nonprofit purchased 72-unit Rancho Cielo in Coachella, said Nadia Villagran, the nonprofit's director of communications and operations. Two years later, the nonprofit acquired 205-unit Los Jardines in Coachella. It also later bought the Bellissima and Tierra Bonita subdivisions in the city.

"The eastern Coachella valley, which is a rural area, has old scattered trailer parks that are really rundown," said John Mealey, executive director of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. "Many thousands of people are living in them. It's a very big issue in the valley. ... So the people that we work with are those people, living on very, very low income."

A four-person household in Riverside County making $48,500 is considered to be low-income. In 2012, the median income in Coachella was $41,600. Out in Mecca, it was $26,500.

Esteban Gutierrez and his family live in a Thermal trailer. But he now spends his days at Los Jardines, where his and 22 other houses are under construction.

"It's not the hours," Gutierrez said. "It's the effort."

No family can move in until all homes in their group are finished. Through a USDA rural development program, families are eligible for low-interest mortgages of 1 percent to market rate, depending on their size and need. They also qualify for certain mortgage subsidies. The average sale price of a Los Jardines home is $140,000. The average mortgage is about $120,000.

Missing bridge

Demand is high for apartments in the eastern Coachella Valley as well.

Alina De Anda, a case manager at the Indio nonprofit Martha's Village & Kitchen, says some clients have waited six months to a year to move into one of the city's 11 affordable housing complexes. "In the meanwhile, they're stuck," De Anda said.

A cutback in work hours can kick someone out of an apartment. One of De Anda's clients worked full-time hours at a grocery store until her hours became seasonal. The client fell behind on rent and was evicted, De Anda said. Now the client has an eviction on her rental history, which could be a deterrent to property managers.

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Esteban Gutierrez immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico as an 18-year-old immigrant. After 32 years of laboring in the Coachella Valley he will finally reached his American Dream of owning a home through with the help of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.  (Photo: J. Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun )

"That's a big thing, is a drop in hours," De Anda said. "Some of our client's work doesn't remain steady."

Without a place to buy or rent, many turn to Martha's Village.

"You have to have a bridge," said Magdalena Andrasevits, executive director of Martha's Village. "But when someone says it's nice here, I don't want to leave, that's now how it's supposed to be. But it's the truth. There's that comfort."

Monthly rent costs more than half the income for more than a quarter of renters nationwide, according to a 2014 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. When rent is that expensive, "then you have you come to Martha's for food," Andrasevits said.

The numbers are creeping up: In 2012, the nonprofit served 220,000 meals to those in need. A year later, the nonprofit served more than 240,000 meals.

 

A reality, little by little

More than three decades ago, Gutierrez moved from Guanajuato, a state in Mexico, to pick lemons and oranges in the Coachella Valley. He drove forklifts, supervised the harvesting of alfalfa, dates and peaches and worked as far as Oxnard. At times, it was hard to find an apartment that could fit his big family.

Eventually, Gutierrez had enough of being on the move. He landed a stable job at Cocopah Nurseries in Indio and stayed there for six years. It was time for a permanent home.

"People know me, and I know them," Gutierrez said. "And that's why I haven't left."

One day, he walked into Indio office of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. He handed in his housing application and employment papers. And in February, Gutierrez, with the help of other families, broke ground. On many late afternoons and Saturday mornings over the past year, like an assembly line, the families raised steel frames, built roofs and hauled away debris.

In the home next door to Gutierrez, Bible verses in Spanish were scrawled over the bare walls:

Esteban Gutierrez and his wife Margarita Valente will finally reach their "American Dream" of owning a home with the help of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.  (Photo: J. Omar Ornelas/The Desert Sun )

"Si dios esta en todo lo que tienes, tienes todo lo que necesitas." "If God is in everything you have, you have everything you need."

Gutierrez's sixth child, Steven Gutierrez, saw how his father struggled.

"When I was young, growing up with my family, I was a bit ignorant about the struggles and everything, but later on through the years, I started to understand how it is to struggle after seeing that we were getting kicked out of homes because the lease up and everything," Gutierrez said.

"That's when I started to wake up and realize that we needed to find a home for ourselves."

For years, Gutierrez joined his father in the fields, picking peaches and lemons, and maintaining irrigation pipes. Over time, he saved $3,000 toward payments on his family's new house. Gutierrez will be a co-owner with his father.

Gutierrez, now 25, is studying media arts and animation at the Art Institute of California campus in San Bernardino. One day, he says, he'll move out of the house to pursue a job in the Los Angeles video game industry.

But first, he's making sure his family's dream comes true.

"It's becoming a reality," he said. "Little by little."

 

Dominique Fong is a business and real estate reporter for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at (760) 778-4661, dominique.fong@desertsun.com and on Twitter @dominiquefong.




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