Foreclosures Considered for Shelters

Saturday, June 21, 2008
Kathleen Wilson
Ventura County Star

Community leaders are looking at the feasibility of converting 100 foreclosed homes in Ventura County into shelters for the homeless.

Nearly 40 financial, government, nonprofit and religious officials met earlier this week in Ventura to explore the idea of developing housing such as emergency shelters, transitional programs and long-term leases for families.

Officials said such a program could not only get the homeless off the streets, but also stabilize real estate prices by lowering the number of unsold houses.

"The consensus seemed to be there was a potential, but also a lot of questions that needed to be answered," said Cathy Brudnicki, executive director of the county Homeless and Housing Coalition.

With a newly released survey showing more than half the people staying in shelters had been sleeping outdoors and in cars, officials see a chance in the surging foreclosures and falling prices.

2,000 homes bank-owned

About 2,000 homes in Ventura County are now owned by banks, said county Supervisor Kathy Long, one of the key figures behind the meeting.

"There has to be an opportunity," she said.

Financial officials attending the meeting said the idea was intriguing, especially if banks could earn credit under the federal Community Reinvestment Act. Under that law, banks are evaluated on how well they meet credit needs of their entire communities, a record that's considered when they seek acquisitions and mergers.

One way large banks meet the test is by giving grants to nonprofit organizations that produce affordable housing, a banking official said.

"You would have to find a way to convert these foreclosed houses into a grant to a nonprofit and get community reinvestment credit," said Ed Summers, senior vice president of Affinity Bank. "Instead of making a cash contribution, they could make the house a contribution."

Cities across the county have adopted a 10-year strategy to end homelessness, partly through building housing. But they face high land prices and neighborhood opposition in the high-cost county with a homeless population estimated at 6,000.

Now the rise in foreclosures may provide a window for what's being called a 10 by 10 program, advocates said. The vision is to convert 10 bank-repossessed homes in each of the county's 10 cities.

Rob Orth, head of a Christian nonprofit organization called the ACTION Foundation, said the idea seemed viable.

"We had a lot of different people thinking in the same direction," he said. "I think we put together one or two, use it as a model. People get used to it, like the idea, then you're able to go forward."

Nonprofit executive Hugh Ralston, who is helping to lead the effort, said he sees both the opportunity and the obstacles.

"We need to do some more homework, understand the complexities and what makes sense for Ventura County," said Ralston, who heads the Ventura County Community Foundation.

Government agencies would have to issue permits and licenses, he said, and the group would have to find ways to legally transfer the homes to a city, county, trust or nonprofit organization.

The various financial interests in the defaulted mortgages must be satisfied as well, he said.

While Ralston talks with banking experts, advocates will be scouting locations where the homes are and trying to see if faith-based organizations would be willing to adopt homes, Long said.

The discussion came the same week that the county's Homeless and Housing Coalition released an annual survey of people staying in Ventura County shelters and transitional programs.

Based on a study of 426 people staying in the facilities on Jan. 29, researchers reported a diverse population. Half were women and children. A little over 60 percent were white, and one-fourth were Latino. Almost three-quarters said they had a high school diploma or better. About half had been homeless for a year or less.

Officials said they are seeing signs of growing homelessness with the economy down and foreclosures up.

Winter facility occupancy up

Calls for assistance are up by 25 percent from last year, said Karol Schulkin, who coordinates homeless services for the Human Services Agency.

The large winter shelter at the Oxnard Armory served 627 separate individuals this year, compared with 415 in 2007, Schulkin said. She said she believes the foreclosures are forcing out not just owners, but also many renters who were occupying the houses.

More homeless are living outdoors at a time when part-time workers can't eke out enough money to stay in a motel, she said. "That's a reflection of the rent picture," she said. "Money just isn't stretching at all."

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