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Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Activists want to establish a micro-farm at this vacant city-owned property on Walnut Street, as part of their effort to develop housing and open space on public lands.

By  NICK GERDA  December 6, 2016

Community activists and city officials are coming together in Santa Ana on an effort to address two of the city’s most pressing problems: a lack of affordable housing and open space.

The idea is to involve community members in developing vacant city-owned properties – many of which are empty dirt or gravel lots – into affordable housing, parks, urban micro-farms, and marketplaces for small businesses.

The properties would be managed by residents and city representatives through a nonprofit organization known as a community land trust, which would work with residents and developers to make it all happen.

“Santa Ana is primed for a community land trust,” said Robert Cortez, Santa Ana’s deputy city manager. When Cortez was in graduate school, he studied how model could work in Santa Ana, and has been working this year with advocates on making it happen.

“We fit the profile of a community that lacks affordable housing, that has available land that potentially could be used to develop permanent affordable housing, or create social capital” through urban agriculture and small-business marketplaces called mercaditos.

There are over 240 community land trusts across the United States, according to the National Community Land Trust Network, including in Irvine, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

In Santa Ana, advocates have been working to set up a nonprofit group, called THRIVE Santa Ana, that would serve as the land trust. Its 10-member board includes local residents and nonprofit leaders.

“It’s about getting the city to think outside the box and be intentional about addressing the housing crisis here in Santa Ana”, said Joesé Hernandez of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD). “There’s people that are one paycheck away from ending up on the streets.”

Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos says he supports the community land trust initiative and is “excited about the innovative approach.”

And City Councilman David Benavides talks about it as a dream about to come true.

“This idea, this dream, has really taken form,” Benavides, who is the executive director of KidWorks, told activists and community members last week. “To me, as a resident, as a part of this community, this is something that is pretty exciting.”

Tonight, the full City Council is scheduled to have their first public discussion on the effort, during a study session with city staff.

One plot of city land in particular is drawing interest as a starting point: 1901 W. Walnut St. The roughly 16,000 square-foot property in the Casa Bonita neighborhood currently houses mounds of rubble. The idea is to turn it into a small urban farm where residents can grow healthy food.

“I think if we have an opportunity to do something great with it, involve the community, and do something for the community, and remove it from being vacant and an eyesore, I think that’s a plus,” Cortez said.

The property is one of about 90 parcels of land the city considers “sellable.” It’s unclear how much total land area there is or how much of it could be developed into housing or open space.

This would not be the first time a Santa Ana-based community land trust has developed housing. And the past experience was rocky.

The Civic Center Barrio Housing Corporation received much positive attention in the 1980s and 90s for developing affordable housing that it continues to operate in Santa Ana and elsewhere. But more recently, the nonprofit was accused of mismanagement and failing to meet its financial obligations.

The group received a $1.2 million loan from Costa Mesa in 1993 to buy and develop apartments in the city. But city officials said last year that it “repeatedly failed to fund capital improvement projects and meet its contractual and financial obligations to the city by repaying back the loans.”

After trying to work with the nonprofit, the city put the properties – which housed about 80 people last year – into foreclosure, according to the Los Angeles Times. Costa Mesa then acquired the 22 apartments and planned to hire a property manager for them.

Supporters of the new effort say there are built-in safeguards to protect against mismanagement, including collaboration with city officials and support from one of California’s largest health foundations.

“We are working closely with the City Council and staff including [Councilman] Benavides who’s championing this, we have backers like the California Endowment, knowledgable allies, and an engaged community that will follow through on the project to ensure its success,” said Hernandez of OCCORD.

At the vacant Walnut Street site last week, Hernandez and other activists painted a vision of transforming unused properties like that one into productive spaces for residents.

“We hope that in the near future we’ll be able to turn this pile of rubble and rocks into something beautiful that the community can enjoy,” he said, before leading the crowd of about 40 people in chants of “¡Si se puede!”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at

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