EDITOR’S NOTE | By Bret Bradigan
Ojai’s Affordable Housing Gap
Ojai has been on the upswing since the Thomas Fire’s devastation. For those grim, ashen days at the charred end of 2017, it seemed like our world was ending. Downtown was a ghost zone, with only a few mask-clad venturers out and about. We were so busy evacuating and/or looking out for our neighbors (thank you to Travis Escalante and Trevor Quirk, among others) that we didn’t really stop to absorb the dread.
When we did, we discovered that the resiliency of Ojai was a force to behold. The #OjaiStrong movement drew tens of thousands of supporters, promoting local wares and local businesses. The Inn pitched in to keep the visitors bureau operating during that key time. We at Ojai Quarterly and Ojai Monthly started the Ojai Hub, which answers weekly the common question: “What’s going on in Ojai?”
So by most measures, Ojai’s economy rebounded smoothly and strongly. The fire’s fallout had a slight impact on our two primary indicators — the transient occupancy or “bed” tax and the sales tax revenues — are projected to be around $2.85 million and sales tax revenues of $1.5 milion, very close to normal.
In the bigger picture, I have my doubts about pure capitalism — incentives can be skewed, inequality seems an inexorable quality, and far too many get left behind. Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder and perhaps the business world’s foremost philospher of sustainability, recently said in Fast Company magazine, “Ultimately, capitalism is going to lose its customers. There won’t be anybody to buy the product because everybody is going to be so poor.”
Despite that, I have faith in a system that rewards innovation and hard work, if, regrettably and all too often, not equally or fairly. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, “Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith. It’s its companion.”
Now our downtown scene is flourishing — the foot traffic alone on a typical weekend is more than I’ve witnessed in my 20 years in Ojai. The traffic, sadly, is getting thicker. But compared to what? Just try getting across the 101-405 interchange at any hour, or getting from one end of Santa Barbara to the other, and you’ll see worse.
There are solutions, for sure, that would require will and risk and political courage and innovative spirit. Chief on that list is affordable housing. Creating more affordable housing addresses four or five problems at once — traffic, inequality, air quality, social infrastructure among them. The worst of our traffic is during commuting hours. If those people lived here — the teachers, the police, the hospital staff, the hospitality workers — traffic would diminish significantly.
These are not problems that lend themselves to free-market solutions, however, because housing prices in Ojai dictate that profits are maximized with more expensive developments. Ojai’s prior affordable housing project, Sycamore Homes, was finished in 2003. The 25 single-family homes were targeted to first-time buyers with an income of 80 percent of the area median income. At the time, the median home price was $400,000, and those homes all sold for less than $178,000.
But it wasn’t a simple collaboration — a partial list of agencies involved include the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation (which won an award for the development), the City of Ojai’s Redevelopment Agency, Ventura County, Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, construction lenders Wells Fargo, Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, Washington Mutual Bank and the state of California CalHome Program.
That’s a lot of moving parts for 25 homes that barely make a dent in the need. We need a lot more interagency cooperation and money sources, a lot of long-term planning and entrepreneurial vision to steer Ojai into its best possible future. The first step would be a campaign of consensus building and persuasion to figure out exactly what the best possible future looks like.