Ventura, California: Affordable Farmworker Housing Designed for Sustainability and Climate Resiliency
In 1992, Thelma Hansen left her assets to the University of California “to support and maintain research and affiliated activities that support the sustainability and benefit of agriculture and natural resources in Ventura County.” The estate included a 36-acre property in Ventura, California, a mid-size coastal city approximately 65 miles from Downtown Los Angeles. In 2015, the university sold the property to support the Hansen Trust’s programs and prepared a site plan for a predominately residential neighborhood “based on the principles of smart growth, sustainable development, and traditional neighborhood design.” This portion of the site was developed with more than 100 single-family houses as well as 34 row houses and public green space. With strong advocacy from House Farm Workers!, the university donated a 1.4-acre portion of the site to the Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura (HACSB) for farmworker housing. The affordable housing development, known as Rancho Verde, opened in 2019 with 23 apartments for farmworkers with very low and extremely low incomes. The project was designed in a sustainable and climate-conscious manner capable of generating energy on site. Rancho Verde won a 2020 U.S. Department of Energy Housing Innovation Award and received LEED Platinum certification.
Housing for Farmers
The one- to four-bedroom apartments in Rancho Verde are spread across 11 one- and two-story buildings. Of the development’s 24 units, 3 are reserved for households earning up to 30 percent of the area median income (AMI), 6 are for those earning up to 45 percent of AMI, and 14 are for those making up to 50 percent of AMI, with one manager’s unit. All of the apartments include a full kitchen with a stove, oven, and dishwasher. The two-unit buildings frame courtyards with seating. A common building has a computer learning center, kitchen, and community room. Rancho Verde is HACSB’s only development dedicated to farmworkers.
Ventura County’s $2 billion agriculture industry is the 11th largest in the nation employing approximately 42,000 workers to harvest strawberries, lemons, avocados, peppers, and other crops. These workers, many of whom are immigrants, make an average of $22,000 a year while the median yearly rent in the county is more than $20,000. The high cost of housing has forced many workers to live in substandard and overcrowded units as well as garages and sheds. The county and the city have acknowledged the need for affordable farmworker housing in their housing plans and subsequent ordinances. For example, in 2012, the city council amended the zoning code to permit housing for farmers by right in agricultural zoning districts, starting with an allowance of up to 12 dwelling units on parcels of at least 40 acres.
Sustainable DesignRancho Verde incorporated numerous sustainable methods and technologies to receive LEED Platinum certification. This included recycling or diverting nearly 80 percent of the waste from construction. Ceiling and roof designs also reduced the amount of framing materials. Rancho Verde’s buildings also have low-flow faucets, showers, and toilets to conserve water. A greywater system recycles about 600 gallons of water each day from laundry machines. This system, along with the drought tolerant plants, reduces the strain on the water supply while also saving residents money. The development was designed to operate at net zero energy. Roofs were shaped to maximize southern exposure and were covered in photovoltaic panels to offset the community’s energy use. Although the development can take energy from the electric grid when needed, the photovoltaic system provides energy back to the grid. A portion of the solar energy is stored in a battery that powers the community room in the evening or during emergencies. To further Rancho Verde’s goal of sustainability, the development was built to be all electric, in combination with using ENERGY STAR®-rated refrigerators, dishwashers, and washers. This nevertheless created a challenge because electric clothes dryers and water heaters are generally more expensive to operate than gas appliances and required enlarging the photovoltaic system, according to Shane Hansen, an associate principal at the sustainability consulting firm Green Dinosaur. The buildings’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are also energy efficient. To ensure all these features are used to their best advantage, residents receive green training. Upon moving in, all residents and the building manager walk through the house to get familiar with its sustainable features; each household also receives a manual on how to make sustainable lifestyle choices.
Financing Rancho VerdeThe development cost about $14 million, which was financed through three primary sources (table 1). Most of the funding was low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) equity. In addition, HACSB provided two loans, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supported the project with a Section 514 loan. USDA also supplements farmers’ rents so that no one pays more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
Table 1: Financing for Rancho Verde
|USDA Farm Labor Housing loan||3,000,000|
|HACSB development loan||840,000|
|HACSB carryback loan||1,600,000|
|Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco||276,000|
|Ventura County Farmworker Housing funds||240,000|
|Deferred developer fee||219,000|
Hansen also credits the development team for going beyond the state’s and USDA’s sustainable requirements. For example, the USDA loan required the development to produce on site at least 80 percent of the energy consumed, but the photovoltaic system was designed to more than offset the site’s total energy load. Similarly, the loan stipulated that the greywater system had to provide at least 50 percent of the site’s irrigation water, yet the system was designed to provide all of Rancho Verde’s irrigation needs. Furthermore, the development was designed to use less than 75 percent of the state’s 2013 Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards before factoring in the photovoltaic panels, and Hansen believes Rancho Verde would likely comply with the forthcoming 2022 version of the standards. The development’s energy-saving features have reduced residents’ energy bills by approximately $800 a year. Although Rancho Verde was HACSB’s first net zero and all electric development, the agency has similar affordable housing projects underway. According to Karen Flock, the deputy director for real estate development at HACSB, the agency plans all future housing projects to be net zero.