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Balancing Two of Ventura County’s Biggest Challenges

Darrin Peschka
Ventura County Transportation Commission
Government and Community Relations Program Manager

What are two of the biggest challenges facing Ventura County? Jobs and affordable housing.
That’s what I took away from the third session of the Ventura County Leadership Academy, when Cohort XXVII took a dive into housing and the local economy. 

If you’ve been in the county for even just a short time, it’s no surprise to hear that housing is expensive and good-paying jobs can be scarce. Yet having a group of experts illustrate those points using research, data and real-world experiences was eye-opening, even for someone who has lived here for years. 

Denise Wise, who is CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura, described the difficulty many people with low incomes face in a county where the average rent for an apartment is now upwards of $2,000 a month. Haider Alawami, economic development manager for Thousand Oaks, listed housing as one of the biggest challenges facing the city. Alex Nguyen, the city manager of Oxnard, called the gap between housing costs and wages “Mount Everest.” In his city, where a large portion of the adult working population has no formal education, Nguyen said the biggest challenge is getting residents the skills they need to be employable.

Like most places, Ventura County was walloped the by COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns. Bruce Stenslie, who is president and CEO of the Economic Development Collaborative, described some of the impacts the pandemic has had locally, including unemployment levels that for a brief period hit near-record highs. Low-income workers were hit particularly hard, Stenslie said, widening the inequity that already existed. Even before the pandemic, job growth in Ventura County was slow, and it remains to be seen what the long-term economic impacts of COVID-19 might be.

Although it would be easy to feel discouraged when hearing about problems that seem insurmountable, several speakers offered glimmers of hope, from recent investments in affordable housing projects to programs that kept businesses afloat and workers employed during the pandemic.

Speaker Jim White, a VCLA alum, encouraged cohort members to “find their passion” and be part of the solution. White has given his time to numerous community organizations through the years, including the Ventura YMCA, Ventura Housing Authority and VCLA, and is currently a citizens representative on the Ventura County Transportation Commission.    

As we get ready to start a new year, I know that I’ll be thinking about what my passion will be in 2022. I’m sure my VCLA colleagues will be doing so, too.

Session Review of the Economy & Transportation

Meridith Thompson

Assistant Controller, The Trade Desk

The November 2021 cohort 27 session was jam-packed with regional information about transportation, housing and how the two intersect. 

We started our day in Ventura, with a series of speakers that focused on leadership and housing-relates topics.  Tracylee Clarke lead us in a discussion of leadership styles, challenging us to pay attention to the strengths of North, South, East and West styles. 

Next, Bruce Stenslie took us through the economics of housing and Ventura County. I was incredibly interested in Bruce’s comments around SOAR laws and the lack of affordable housing, noting that one way to address the issue but keep SOAR intact is to “build up” (multistory housing units), noting that these units do not have to be a scary thing, but are instead incredibly necessary in our county. 

The third speaker group was Alex Nguyen, Oxnard City Manager, and Haider Alawami, Thousand Oaks  Economic Development. Alex and Haider gave us an in-depth overview and comparison of their cities, noting the challenges and opportunities that come with managing each unique city. 

The last morning session was from Denise Wise, CEO Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura. Her passion for housing was infectious and is being put to good use at her organization. She explained house they are or the average housing authority, offering care for the full person, including everything from housing needs to financial planning to Girl Scouts groups. My favorite take away was her comment that their latest project included electric vehicle charging stations, so they are ready for the day when EVs are the standard mode of transport.

The second half of the day focused on transportation. We were given a fantastic overview of transportation in Ventura County by Vanessa Rauschenberger, Gold Coast Transit, and Amanda Fagan, VC Transport Commission, followed by a tour of the new Gold Coast Transit facility. I loved learning that the building planners solicited feedback from the GCT employees for the building. Some of the employee feedback that was built into the new facility includes a social area with a grill and bocce back court, and a walking tract to get some steps in after a long day driving buses. 

The day ended with a discussion lead by Tim Gallagher, 20/20 Network, about the Ventura County transportation tax initiative. The major focus of the talk was that Ventura County is one of the very few that does not have a portion of our sales tax dedicated to transportation. As a result of this “missing” tax, the county is behind in forward-thinking transportation initiatives, which has a bigger impact on the struggling sectors of our community that rely on public transportation to get to work, school, health care and shopping. 

True to VCLA fashion, session three was jam-packed with thoughtful and informative information, that inspires us all to dig deeper into our wonderful community. 

The Crisis of the Unhoused in Thousand Oaks

Atticus Reyes, VCLA Cohort XXVII

Field Representative, Office of CA State Assemblymember Steve Bennett

The second session of VCLA consisted of community outreach projects where we were all split into small groups and dispersed across different cities of Ventura County to learn about their issues and report back to the cohort. This was quite an intimidating task as it required me to visit Thousand Oaks, a city I had never really visited or had any previous knowledge about.

Our group chose to tour the Thousand Oaks Police Department, which is essentially a part of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Thousand Oaks, like a few other cities in Ventura County, do not have the resources to fund their own municipal police department so they contract with the county sheriffs to provide law enforcement resources. I was very interested in this tour as criminal justice reform is a deep passion of mine.
I will spare most of the details of the tour as this one piece stuck out to me since it involved one of California’s most pressing issues: the housing crisis. Thousand Oaks is no stranger to homelessness, and the sheriffs explained how many of their calls over the past few years have consisted of folks requesting assistance in clearing out homelessness encampments. This has put a lot of pressure on the sheriff’s as they are called in to address what is really a nationwide crisis which is ultimately the result of a broken system.
Looking at this issue through a political lens, it is intriguing as I believe local elected officials often lean on law enforcement to address the effects of issues like these rather than spend political capital to actually address the root causes of these issue. When discussing this, the Chief did mention that due to a 9th Circuit ruling, Martin v. Boise which prohibits cities from criminalizing the status of homelessness itself by punishing individuals for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go, it has actually pushed the local city government to begin addressing this issue structurally. Law enforcement if not allowed to arrest homeless individuals if the local city government has not provided them with a place to reside. I think this has great potential to push elected leaders to put some skin in the game rather than pass the buck along by simply calling on law enforcement to address it. I hope elected leaders, as well as community stakeholders, come together to find a way to holistically and humanely address this crisis that is harming some of our most vulnerable neighbors.