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No Room at the Ranch

The backers of a massive development at the northern edge of L.A. County are capitalizing on the region‘s worsening housing crisis in an effort to curry favor for their long-delayed mini-city. “There is a critical housing crisis in Southern California,” said Steven W. Weston of Weston Benshoof, which provides legal counsel to Washington Mutual Bank, the developer of the Ahmanson Ranch project just west of the L.A. County line. “This planned community would help meet these housing needs.”

But affordable-housing advocates doubt the project will help those who need it most. Although some “affordable housing” units are planned, no one making minimum wage would think so. In Ventura County, where the project would be built, a very low-income person, defined as one who earns less than 50 percent of the median income, makes $25,000 a year. The cheapest units in the project are geared toward those workers. A minimum-wage job brings in about $13,000 a year. Annual earnings for a very low-income family of five is $38,750. If one parent stays home to take care of the kids, the lone wage earner would have to be making $18 an hour to afford the rent of the least-expensive units in the Ahmanson project. “Where will the gardeners, nannies, clerks and delivery-service people live?” asked Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing. “They all earn minimum wage. That town can’t survive without them, but they won‘t be able to live there.”

The Ahmanson proposal includes 3,050 homes, two golf courses, and 400,000 square feet of commercial and office space on a 2,800-acre stretch of open space near Calabasas on the Ventura side of the county line (all access roads would be in L.A. County). The project has been stalled for years by a string of unsuccessful lawsuits and other challenges brought by environmentalists and residents fighting to protect one of the last expanses of open space in the region.

Until recently, it appeared that a 1992 decision by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors permitting the project would stand. But in recent months, the future of the project has been called into question. Two developments -- increased traffic estimates and the discovery of two rare species, the San Fernando spineflower and the California red-legged frog -- led a state legislative analyst to find that county agreements could be scuttled if the project does not meet state environmental regulations.

Last week, actor Martin Sheen, producer-director Rob Reiner and HBO executive Chris Albrecht stood with a host of environmentalists outside a branch of Washington Mutual and announced the formation of the Rally To Save Ahmanson Ranch. Emboldened by the findings of the legislative analyst, their immediate goal is to force Washington Mutual to submit to a new environmental-impact report. The original report was completed nearly nine years ago, too long for the results to remain valid, Reiner said. Although a supplemental report is under way, Reiner said the extent of the damage the project could cause can only be revealed through a complete review. “We are here to stop Washington Mutual from destroying the environment,” Reiner said. “They can’t handle the truth.”

Washington Mutual has fought hard against charges of environmental neglect, hiring former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to lobby on the project‘s behalf and running full-page ads in The New York Times and the L.A. Times that employed a folksy style and grainy, recycled look most often associated with environmental causes.

In response to the Rally To Save Ahmanson Ranch, Washington Mutual appears to be trying a different tack, playing on concerns about Southern California’s deepening housing shortage. “If we block such high-quality developments as Ahmanson Ranch, we might as well say we‘re not going to allow housing to be built in the region,” said Guy Gniadek, president of the Ahmanson Land Co., in a news release issued after the Reiner-Sheen event.

A breakdown of the proposed “affordable” units in the Ahmanson project shows that relatively few low-income families will actually be able to live there. The project calls for 674 such units. Some 300 of those are so-called granny flats -- one-room units attached to luxury homes. Another 50 units are single-room occupancy, or SRO. “They’re either building overcrowded housing or forcing families to live apart,” Breidenbach said. “Is that good planning?”

Numerous studies have shown that among low-income workers, the biggest shortage lies in three- and four-bedroom family housing. Just 15 “affordable” units in the Ahmanson development have four bedrooms. Two- and three-bedroom units are listed together, for a total of 245 units. Also listed are 64 townhouses, without bedroom count. There are no units for “very, very low-income” residents, a category newly created by Housing and Urban Development to include the so-called “working poor,” including families living on the income from a single wage-earner in a low-paying job.

Breidenbach said she was loath to criticize any project that brought additional housing to Southern California. But, she said, a project that ignores the chance to build the right kind of housing is a real disappointment. “We believe in increased density,” she said. “In-fill housing, transit-friendly housing. We believe in real low-income housing where families can afford to live. A massive housing project that is not going to provide housing for those who need it most is not one that strikes me as a good idea.”