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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Making Room for the Middle Class

I picked up my son from a soccer practice at the gorgeous new fields in Camarillo near the development known as Village at the Park. The sun was going down. The weather was still warm. Nearby, dozens of parents were coming home from work into the mixed-use community of single-family homes, townhomes, condos and apartments. Some stopped at the YMCA built nearby. This is Middle America (West Coast style) for the middle class. And it’s dying in Southern California. The middle class will soon be a memory to this part of the world unless local decision-makers wise up and create more places for people to live. More than 40,000 workers drive to their jobs into Ventura County each day. They come from as far away as Lancaster, but many are closer – making the drive from Santa Clarita or the San Fernando Valley. Talk to their employers and what you hear is: These people make a decent salary, but they can’t afford to live in Ventura County. Rents for apartments (if you can find one – the vacancy rate in some communities is less than 3 percent) are higher here than anywhere else in Southern California. Only the Bay Area and Silicon Valley have higher rents than we do. After a temporary decline during the Great Recession, housing prices are headed up again. New home projects routinely list “starter” homes at $700,000 and up. The housing shortage drives these tight markets and high rents. Indeed, Ventura County approved only 800 new housing units in 2014. There were 800 units approved in 2013. And 400 approved in 2012. That’s 2,000 units added to the community in three years while the population grew by about 25,000 during the same time period. What’s happening as a result? The middle class is leaving. Lower-income people are staying but they are doubling and tripling up on the space normally allotted for people in a house. Drive through some middle- to lower-income neighborhoods on Sunday morning after dawn and you will see what I mean. There can be seven or eight vehicles associated with each house. Our two excellent universities report that each year they graduate hundreds of students who would love to stay in Ventura County or the Valley. But the salaries they make at starter jobs will not allow it, so they move in with mom and dad or they move out of state. How many parents do you know who have waved goodbye to their millennial children who have chosen to move to Arizona, or Nevada, or Oregon or Georgia to start a career and buy a home? The middle class drives a community. They put children in our schools and on our soccer fields. They go to church. They shop at grocery stores. They dine in restaurants. They spend the money they make in our community and create more commerce and more jobs. They build their homes and their lives here and grow into higher-income homeowners. But when you price them out of the market, they go elsewhere and build their lives. Our elected leaders have got to find the courage and common sense to withstand the angry mobs of NIMBYs and pull-up-the-drawbridge-after-I-arrive people who show up at council meetings to protest whenever a housing project is proposed. These are the same people who can’t be bothered to vote during local elections, but they will show up with pitchforks and torches if someone wants to build a housing project down the street. Thousand Oaks is facing a decision that should not be difficult. Its mixed-use plan for Thousand Oaks Boulevard contains only 220 housing units for a three-mile stretch. But already developers have plans for more than 600. This is a no-brainer. Housing along a commercial corridor creates vitality and business. It helps the middle class get started. Not far from the Village at the Park in Camarillo, another developer recently proposed a large project with hundreds of homes. The typical community outrage ensued with shallow coverage provided by the local papers that quoted endlessly those who said, “We don’t want to turn Camarillo into another Orange County.” While the scale of the project was probably too large to swallow in one bit, the developer was sent packing without so much as a “let’s work on this together. Come back with a scaled-down proposal.” Village at the Park was approved by a different council in a different time amidst similar “The world will end if you approve this project” protests. The world did not end. It was built and it’s a lovely development. The developer added a dozen soccer fields and softball fields. A YMCA was built nearby. There are stores and schools. It’s a great place filled with middle class people who are building a better community. Business leaders in this county must beseech our local council people to consider the middle class. Allow more housing for the people who work here. Jim Scanlon, a Camarillo resident, is area president of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. and former president of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County.

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