A time of transition; economic impacts significant
While the recession knocked myriad working people and companies off their strides, and inflicted more pain on the disadvantaged, data show it to be a co-conspirator with rising population in Imperial County’s tight housing market. Starting about 2008-09 the number of permits local agencies issued for housing construction plummeted. It is just now showing signs of emerging from a long hibernation.
In Imperial, the Victoria Homes development south of Aten Boulevard and Cross Road is experiencing brisk sales, said Michelle Hollinger, vice president of sales and marketing. Its Cambria subdivision, with “entry level” homes in the low $200,000s, has seen 34 units sold since opening in January 2015, she said. The fancier Tuscany homes, priced from the high $200,000s, has seen 68 sold since opening in December 2013.
Dozens more lots await construction and Hollinger revealed the firm is exploring acquiring land that would allow them to build about 500 more homes, all the way out to Dogwood Road and within sight of the IVC campus that seemed so far away in the early 1960s.
Victoria Homes built numerous houses in the Aten and Cross area before the recession brought work to a halt. Of restarting the development, Hollinger admitted, “It was still a gamble. Either pay taxes on the land or build on the land.”
While some home building in new developments persisted in Imperial even at the recession’s nadir, there were years of little to no new building in El Centro, Brawley and the unincorporated areas of Imperial County, data show. Worse, there are housing developments, some partially built, that their owners just stopped due to low demand and financial problems.
That disaster is slowly righting itself, local officials said.
One proposed El Centro project is Lotus Ranch by GMAC Development that could have nearly 600 homes on 200 acres west of LaBrucherie Avenue, south of Interstate 8, said Norma Villicana, city director of community development.
Owner Gary McPhetridge is aiming right toward a sweet spot in the market, she said, explaining, “There is demand for a step above entry-level. He is going to have a variety, but he is going to start with that.”
Hope simmers for those abandoned developments as well. Villicana said a builder is resurrecting Citrus Grove on 47 acres east of South Fourth Street and north of McCabe Road. It calls for 120 homes.
In Brawley activity includes Florentine, a subdivision with 60 of 72 homes built, La Valencia, a condominium project that is mostly done, and 40 affordable apartments under construction in phase one of what will be a larger project, Planning Director Gordon Gaste said. While the city’s website lists several more housing projects suspended at the request of the developer, Gaste revealed there is finally interest in them.
“We’ve had a couple calls about what they need to do next, but nothing firm. A couple may start again within a year. They’re all entitled and ready to be built on,” Gaste said.
While “the low $200,000s” might be deemed entry level by the home-building industry, those homes remain far out of reach for Imperial Valley’s impoverished. Previously, cities had funding to help residents with housing, but that ability was largely severed when Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature ended the Redevelopment Agency program in 2012. It left a painful void, local officials agree.
“Cities do not have low-income housing programs due to RDA (redevelopment agency funding) loss. They need to apply for grants that are competitive,” said Esperanza Colio Warren, director of Imperial County Community and Economic Development.
Those programs included first-time homebuyer assistance, mobile home repair and assistance to affordable multi-family housing projects. Imperial County is able to continue some programs through the Community Development department, but it is limited to the unincorporated areas of the county.
Colio Warren adds the problem can be double-edged for cities because not only do they not have funds to distribute, “They don’t have a person doing affordable housing. The funding does not give money for the administration of the program.”
A possible solution, Colio Warren said, is to centralize housing assistance under the county but while some smaller local cities have inquired about such help, nothing formal has been proposed.
Colio Warren maintains more might be done if the true cost of inadequate housing was considered.
Asked if there is a strong need for affordable housing in Imperial County, she replied, “Yes.”
Asked if the need is being met, she added, “No. As a whole county we have to be more proactive. When people talk about economic development they forget community development. People need stable housing.”
Perhaps no one has had closer involvement with economic development in Imperial County over the last three decades than Thomas Topuzes. Now owner of the El Centro-based business consulting firm Topuzes and Associates, he has been leader in banking, small business development and international trade, as well as being involved in the establishment of Community Valley Bank and the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation.
When asked if there is a relationship between housing and a person’s success, he said, “The first word that comes to mind is stability. When you have an affordable housing market, you have stability for the employees. For the employers, employees are more content and more productive.”
He added affordable housing is an increasing issue in the coastal areas of Southern California because prices are so high.
At the Imperial County Workforce Development Office, director Miguel Figueroa oversees an agency that had more than 50,000 total visits in 2015 by those seeking to improve their employment status and totaled 1217 placements. The effort is made more difficult by housing issues, he said.
“I have seen a common denominator in those clients who have an unstable household,” Figueroa explained. “They are the ones I see not completing training and failing.
“People must be in class six to eight hours a day just like a job. If they can’t focus on the training and have to worry about having a roof over their head, they can’t take advantage of the opportunities we offer.”
Housing is a more perilous issue for younger adults who, not coincidentally, also are more likely to be under- or unemployed. A 2014 Census report estimated more than 28 percent of Imperial County population was under 18, so that represents a large number headed toward the job market. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for those under 25 is typically above the overall unemployment rate.
“I see a lot of displacements in housing. They (youths) are jumping from one household to another. A lot of our clients come from broken homes,” Figueroa added.
The cycle of unstable housing and poor job prospects can be daunting for residents of all ages, though hope often prevails.
“It works both ways. It can make you feel depressed where you don’t feel like finding a job. Or it can push you,” Colio Warren observed.
Added Roark of the Housing Authority, “It can go either way. They only have so much money. $600 for that unit and you only have $400 for other things. It’s a viscous cycle. The car breaks down. Do they pay the rent or fix the car to get to their job?”
Topuzes said despite local challenges he sees advantages Imperial County has that are leveraged to improve quality of life.
“The issue in California is the cost of housing, especially the coastal areas. Not so in Imperial Valley,” he said, recalling Imperial County has a median home price and rental costs less much lower than other Southern California counties and less than half that of San Diego County.
The attraction of the area for some, however, goes beyond simple cost of living, he noted, explaining, “In Imperial Valley you have a strong sense of community. A more involved relationship between an individual and the community, such as 4-H and Little League. Gathering places with recreational activities. If they are buying a home, they feel like they belong.”