This piece was produced for KCRW’s Sonic Trace by independent producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. It originally aired on Which Way, LA?, as well as KCRW’s DnA podcast. It was edited by Lu Olkowski with sound design by Ray Guarna.
All over the country, and here in Southern California, there are many high income areas that thrive and depend on low-income jobs. These jobs are often filled by immigrants: nannies, landscapers, kitchen staff, housekeepers and janitors. Thousand Oaks in Ventura County is one of these places, but because of the city’s strict zoning laws, many of the low-income workers in Thousand Oaks can’t afford to live there. So, the workers of Thousand Oaks spill over to the neighborhood of Newbury Park, most of them living together in high-density apartments called Las Casitas.
For two months, I hung out in Newbury Park talking to residents, neighbors, families to find out what brings immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras to suburbia in Southern California. For many of these families, Las Casitas has become a stepping stone toward the American Dream.
Listen to the radio story here:
Newbury Park is next to the City of Thousand Oaks. And like Thousand Oaks, it’s a rich suburb. A single-family home in the area ranges from $250,000 to $2.2 mil. In fact, the only affordable housing in the area is found at the Conejo Creek Condos in Newbury Park, also known as Las Casitas.
Las Casitas looks like one huge cookie cutter house. But when you look closer, you make out four doors and see that it’s actually divided into four apartments. It looks that way, because it’s meant to look like the rest of Newbury Park – suburban.
The neighborhood is a tract housing development with 135 “big-looking houses” or buildings, for a total of 540 apartments. Each apartment has two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. They are individually owned and part of a Home Owners Association (HOA).
In each building there are:
one “Manor”unit 810 sq. ft. (front and ground level),
two “Townhouse” 903 sq. ft. side units (2 story) and
one “Penthouse” unit 882 sq. ft. (with a Balcony) over the Garage/Carport (Back and second story level).
Las Casitas seems perfectly comfortable for a family of four. But even though it’s considered affordable in the context of Newbury Park and Thousand Oaks, it’s still not affordable for the people that actually live there. As a result, Las Casitas has become a place for high-density living, which means a lot of people living in a small space.
The two-bedroom units in Las Casitas will house up to ten people at a time. People rent the couches in the living room, corners on the floor, cubby holes under the stairs and sometimes an entire family of four will live in one bedroom.
To accommodate everyone, the kitchen pantries will transform into closets for keeping clothes and shoes; or partition walls will be built in the living room for more privacy. America Yeresma Villanueva Nava grew up, lives and works in Las Casitas and tells us how some people live there.
Architect and urban designer, Hugo Martinez grew up sharing in Las Casitas. He calls it, “A living style that is truly based on necessity.” Hugo talks about growing up in Las Casitas, and seeing it in the context of architecture and design. He sees Las Casitas as an example of people finding innovative ways to live in a situation of “high-density”.
Inside, Las Casitas feels chaotic, messy and unpredictable. But there are residents like Navia Ortiz who have found a haven there. Navia came to Newbury Park, Calif., from a rural village in Guatemala eighteen years ago. She used to rent a piece of floor in a living room in Las Casitas. Today, she is on the lease, pays $1,300 and rents to eight recently arrived immigrants. This past decade, her apartment has been the first step to 70 or 80 immigrants. She says it’s her life’s purpose to give recent arrivals a home during their first months and years in the U.S.
For decades Las Casitas has been stigmatized as the ‘bad’ neighborhood in the Thousand Oaks area. It had its share of tensions in the early 2000s, but in reality, it’s just an immigrant neighborhood. Most people in Las Casitas are from rural villages in Mexico and Central America. They come to the area to work.
As chaotic as it is from the inside, the outside stays picture perfect. America Yeresma Villanueva Nava tells us why. And former City Manager of Ventura, Rick Cole gives us some context.