Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Real Estate: Valley cities could get shut out of USDA rural housing programs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is changing the way it defines rural communities, a move that could shut out residents in 923 California cities — including seven in Fresno County — from accessing its rural housing programs.

On Oct. 1, the USDA will start using population statistics from the 2010 Census to determine if a city or community is rural. Those areas with a population of 10,000 people or less, or fewer than 20,000 people if located in a metropolitan statistical area, will be considered rural, the USDA said.

The department has been using 1990 population statistics, under a grandfather clause, to determine eligibility. That clause, which set the rural population at 25,000, will expire this year unless Congress extends it or takes some sort of action, the USDA said.

Under the new rule, Fresno cities like Coalinga, Kerman, Kingsburg, Mendota, Parlier, Reedley and Selma would no longer be eligible for the program. Another eight cities in Kings, Madera and Tulare counties would also lose the federal help.

Last fiscal year, the USDA distributed more than $53 million in home loans and home repair programs to moderate- and low-income Fresno County homebuyers and homeowners.

“For a lot of families these programs are the only options they have for purchasing a home,” said Sarah Marquart, public affairs specialist for the USDA. “It’s unfortunate to see a lot of these communities not be eligible any longer.”

For nonprofit housing agencies like Self-Help Enterprises of Visalia, the rule change could have a devastating effect.

Over the last 10 years, Self-Help has built more than 80% of its homes in the Valley cities that are slated to become ineligible. And most of the agency’s homeowners use the USDA direct loan program.

Under the new rule, “the families that participate in our program would not have access to the best direct mortgage available,” said Tom Collishaw, vice president of Self-Help. “And Self-Help would not be able to use the grant it received from the USDA to help people. Suddenly we wouldn’t be able to help people in those areas.”

Real Estate: The south Valley has a new home builder

(Submitted photo. Jim Robinson (left), Joe Leal and Randy Merrill are the principals of San Joaquin Valley Homes.)

Home buyers in the south Valley have a new builder to consider when looking to buy or build their new home.

San Joaquin Valley Homes has joined the new home market.

The Visalia-based company is led by Joe Leal, who oversaw the growth of national builder McMillin Homes in the Central Valley for five years and two former McMillin colleagues – Jim Robinson and Randy Merrill.  The trio has also teamed up with Don Faye of Presidio Residential, a real estate construction lending company.

“Jim, Randy and I worked together for 15 years at The Allen Group and then at McMillin Homes and we have learned a great deal over the years,” Leal said. “We understand that home buyers want a quality home that offers value.”

Robinson, an engineer, manages land acquisition, land development and entitlement for the new company.

“We were fortunate to be able to make some good decisions and the time is right,” Robinson said. “The economy has picked up and there is now a shortage of available homes. We are excited about the future and pleased to be building homes again.”

The company will begin building two developments in the fall. The first will be Hartley Grove near 12th Avenue, south of Highway 198 which is expected to open for sale in late September. The second will be Savannah in Tulare, at Cross Avenue and West Street which is slated for a late October opening.

Both developments will have five floor plans with one and two story designs that range in size from 1,390 to 2,322 square feet.

The company expects to open up to eight neighborhoods in Tulare, Kings and Kern counties by next summer.

Real Estate: Ivanhoe celebrates first new apartment complex since 1992

(Photo provided by the Corporation for Better Housing. The Linda Vista Apartments in Ivanhoe.)

The unincorporated town of Ivanhoe on Tuesday celebrated the grand opening of its first new affordable apartment complex in years.

The Linda Vista Apartments, on the southwest corner of Avenue 327 and Highway 216, is the first new apartment development to be built since 1992, according to the Tulare County Resource Management Agency.

The $16.6 million project answers a call from the agricultural community to provide housing for the area’s poor and farm-worker families. It was paid for with state and federal housing grants, tax credits and farmworker housing funds.

“Safe, affordable housing has long been sorely needed in Ivanhoe,” said Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley, who represents the area.

The 76-unit complex has one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, a community center, basketball court and playground area.

The developer was the Corporation for Better Housing, a Sherman Oaks-based nonprofit development company has has built several other affordable housing projects in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties.

For more information, visit corpforbetterhousing.com.

Farmers, feds, Audubon protect tricolored blackbirds again

On one Tulare County farm this year, more than 30,000 tricolored blackbirds found something they liked — silage fields resembling marshland that the birds prefer to inhabit.

Tricolored blackbirds

The farmer held off harvesting the dairy silage until the nesting and fledging had been completed by the end of May. A potential killing field was avoided.

Five other farmers did the same thing. The total number of birds involved was 65,000.

It’s another happy ending for the tricolored blackbirds, which have been protected by these harvesting delays for a few years now. And it’s a prime example of farmers helping nature.

I’ve written stories about this effort in the past. To  Western United Dairymen works with Audubon California and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service.

For dairy owners, the partnership makes sense because it is a major influence in keeping the bird off the protection list for the federal Endangered Species Act, which can be stifling to business and industry.

The tricolored blackbird is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as being a species of concern for both state and federal governments. About 40% of tricolored black birds nest in the Central Valley, says Audubon California.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offer farmers financial help to compensate them for their loss of grain, due to the late harvesting.

Voting starts in 16th State Senate District battle to replace Rubio

Let the 16th State Senate District voting begin!

Monday was the first day voters living in the district could cast ballots for the May 21 special election to fill the seat of Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who unexpectedly resigned in February to take a job with the Chevron Corp.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said her office mailed out absentee ballots on Monday to 16th District voters who live in the county. Clerks in Tulare, Kern and Kings did the same.

But starting Monday at 8:30 a.m., Orth’s office was also open to anybody registered to vote in the district who couldn’t wait a moment longer to cast their ballot. And, Orth said, a few did just that.

There are five candidates seeking the seat: Peace and Freedom Party candidate Mohammad Arif of Bakersfield, Fresno Democrat Paulina Miranda, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, Riverdale Democrat Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Hanford Republican Andy Vidak.

If none of the candidates gets 50% of the votes, plus one, in the May 21 election, the top two vote-getters will face off in a July 23 runoff.

The district favors a Democrat, but Republicans say they like their chances because special elections typically have low turnouts, which often favors the GOP.

Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the district was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.

But that support is not spread even across the district.

For instance, in Fresno County Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 30,000 registered voters.

But in Kings County, Republicans outnumber Democrats, though only by a few thousand. In Tulare County, Democrats outnumber Republicans, but not by much. Kern County is another Democratic stronghold.

Still, it is clear that any winning strategy must center on Fresno County. Though it is at the district’s northern end, Fresno County has, at slightly more than 48%, the largest number of voters in the district.

Political Data has also collected some other interesting information.
For instance, almost 60% of registered voters have an average income below $50,000, and less than 1% are above $100,000.

The City of Fresno has, by far, the most voters — 25.9% of the district’s total. Next is unincorporated Kern County at 8.5% and Bakersfield and Hanford, each with 7.8% of the voters.

Where does the federal money go for safe-drinking water?

Federal leaders last week notified California that it needs to account for $455 million for safe drinking water here. The money has not been lost or squandered. It just hasn’t been spent yet.

That all sounds like a picky bureaucratic complaint. After all, the state intends to use that money for improving drinking water.

But this is about accounting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and taxpayers. This is about seeing the state’s priorities and making sure those in need are getting the help.

Two years ago, The Bee asked questions like these in a series of stories about small towns that have waited years to get funding to fix drinking water problems.

Who will get the money? How is it prioritized? Are the water systems with the most needs getting the help? What is the holdup?

We found towns, such as Seville in Tulare County, that had been bounced to lower priorities over technicalities and delayed for years.

The state rejected a request for a $500,000 grant because the town’s water company had gone bankrupt, and county governments are not allowed to apply for residents.

Progress has been made for funding in Seville over the last 18 months, but there hasn’t been a fix. People with poverty-level incomes are still forced to buy bottled water.

In another instance, the California Department of Public Health, which holds the purse strings, balked at a regional water cleanup that would have helped several towns with contaminated wells. Again, technical reasons were cited.

The concern about the state’s approach has always been about transparency and accountability. Now EPA says it wants to know about nearly a half billion dollars of public money. The state has 60 days to address that concern.

Democrats look to Bakersfield school trustee for Valadao challenge

Local and national Democrats think a Bakersfield City School District member might make the perfect challenger for first-term congressman David Valadao, a Hanford Republican.

Andrae Gonzales is currently the board’s president pro tem. Democrats call him an “up-and-comer.” Even Bakersfield Republican political consultant Stan Harper calls him “viable” and “bright.”

Andrae Gonzales

The question is: Can he unseat Valadao in the 21st Congressional District?

Democrats are still unhappy that they failed to even put up a fight for the seat last November. They hold a 15-percentage-point registration advantage in the district over the rival Republicans, but Valadao thumped Fresno Democrat John Hernandez, 58% to 42%.

Despite the registration advantage for Democrats, it never looked good for them during last year’s campaign.

Hernandez never seemed to get off the ground. His campaign seemed unfocused and not nearly visible enough. It was also dogged by debt.

Democrats never wanted Hernandez in the first place. They preferred Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, but in the state’s new top two primary, Valadao and Hernandez finished one-two. Xiong was left on the sidelines.

Now, Hernandez says he’s running again. And Democrats once again want an alternative, said Matt Rogers, chairman of the Fresno County Young Democrats.

Rogers said he spoke with Gonzales on Thursday morning, and the 31-year-old is interested in a run against Valadao. And, Rogers said, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also reached out to Gonzales.

Gonzales was also mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Michael Rubio, who abruptly resigned from the state Senate in February. A May 21 special election is set to fill that seat.

John Hernandez

But Gonzales isn’t the only potential candidate. Democrats are also talking to former state Sen. Dean Florez, as well as his mother Fran, a Shafter council member.

Florez might even be preferable for a Valadao challenge, because he twice won election in a Senate district that matches up well with the 21st Congressional District’s current boundaries — which takes in parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties and all of Kings County.

But Rogers said nobody in Democratic Party circles thinks Dean Florez will run.
The bench isn’t very deep for Democrats, either. Another possibility was newly elected Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, but now she’s running to replace Rubio in the state Senate.

If Gonzales does run — or Dean or Fran Florez, for that matter — the next hurdle would be getting them sufficient funds to mount an effective campaign.
Rogers said Democrats want to hold on the 36th Congressional District, where Raul Ruiz upset incumbent Republican Mary Bono Mack last year. The GOP will likely target that Southern California seat next year.

There are other seats held by Democrats in the state that also must be held, Rogers said.

In the end, will there be enough cash to fund Valadao’s challenger? And, it seems, the party may also have to get that person past a primary that may include Hernandez.

Vidak, off to quick Senate fundraising start, nets $90k in 10 days

On March 10 — which was just 10 short days ago — Hanford Republican Andy Vidak announced on his Facebook page that he would seek the 16th state Senate seat that came open when Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio abruptly resigned last month.

Since then, Vidak said, he’s been working the phones, seeking both support and cash.

Andy Vidak

He’s off to a good start, according to the Secretary of State’s Web site.

By March 13, records show, Vidak was already recording a string of donations.

The most recent filing was today. The total so far — close to $90,000.

To date, almost all of the cash is coming from agriculture, though Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare also chipped in $4,100 from her 2018 state Senate account.

Contributions also include $2,500 from Allbright Cotton of Fresno and $4,100 each from Madera farmer Chester Andrew and Cutler-based Golden Star Citrus.

As of this afternoon, the other candidates, including Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez and Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez — the two highest-profile Democrats — have yet record any donations, according to the Secretary of State’s Web site.

In the meantime, the list of people who have at least pulled campaign papers — the first step toward a run for the seat — has grown to seven.

Besides Florez, Perez and Vidak, other candidates who already had pulled papers included Fresno resident John Estrada and Francisco Ramirez Jr.

They are now joined by Jerry Armendariz and Arif Mohammad, who have unknown hometowns and list no ballot designation.

Perez, with big-name backing, rounds out 16th Senate front runners

A little more than two months ago, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez was sworn in to her first term on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

Now, she’s looking to move up to the state Senate, announcing Monday that she would run for the seat of fellow Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who abruptly resigned last month.

In doing so, Perez will have the backing of the Senate’s Democratic leadership team — including President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg — and some of its most influential senators.

Leticia Perez

Among them are Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, Democratic Caucus Chair Jerry Hill, and Ron Calderon, Lou Correa, Kevin De Leon, Cathleen Galgiani and Hannah-Beth Jackson. There are 18 in all.

Perez’s announcement — which was widely expected — sets up what is likely a three-way race between her, fellow Democrat Fran Florez and Hanford Republican Andy Vidak.

Others are running, but Florez, Perez and Vidak will have the name identification and/or money necessary to be competitive.

Florez, who is on the Shafter City Council and is the mother of Dean Florez, who held the Senate seat before Rubio, could be the odd person out, said Stan Harper, a Bakersfield-based Republican political consultant.

“There is no question in my mind Leticia will get more votes than Fran,” Harper said.

That would likely put Perez into a runoff against Vidak.

Florez gave some insight into her strategy when on Monday she officially announced her candidacy — in Fresno.

Fran Florez

She said Fresno County, in terms of the number of voters, is the biggest part of the 16th Senate District. The numbers confirm that. There are more than 137,000 voters in the Fresno County portion of the 16th District. In Kern County, it is around 75,000.

The district is 50.7% Democrat and 28.6% Republican.

Fresno County also happens to be a part of the district where Florez has some name identification, either through her two unsuccessful state Assembly runs, or from Dean Florez. Perez, in the meantime, is virtually unknown in Fresno.

But Perez will likely have plenty of money to help close that name identification deficit, thanks to the Senate leadership’s backing. That support seems like a slap in the face to Dean Florez. It was Steinberg, as incoming Senate President pro Tem, who in 2008 named Florez Senate majority leader.

Perez also has a political get-out-the-vote machine inherited from Rubio — her former boss.

“Leticia will have a better ground game,” Harper said. “As much as Fran has what Dean had several years ago, Leticia has everything in place that Rubio had a year ago.”

Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong introduced Florez, and one person standing behind her was Dave Wilson of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. He said he personally supported Florez and would work to get the UFCW behind her as well.

On the Republican side, it appears that Vidak — who in 2010 came close to ousting Fresno Democrat Jim Costa from Congress — won’t have any competition from within his own party.

Andy Vidak

It means he’ll likely do well in the May 21 primary election. He might even win. But if, as expected, none of the candidates win a majority of the votes, the top two will advance to a run-off July 23.

The special election to replace Rubio will be for the 16th Senate District as it was between 2002 and 2012. Next year, the person in the seat must run again under newly drawn boundaries. That is the 14th state Senate District. The two districts are 88% the same.

Autry decides against running for Rubio’s Senate seat this year, but may run in 2014

After thinking it over for a day, former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry has decided not to seek the state Senate seat vacated by Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio.

Autry, 60, said he is too busy right now between television shows and working on a mentoring program for troubled youths that he started six months ago.

But, he said in an interview today, his decision applies only to the May 21 special election that will temporarily fill the seat that came open when Rubio abruptly resigned on Feb. 22. Whoever wins that contest must stand for re-election next year – when Rubio’s term would have been up – and Autry said he will give serious consideration to running then.

“In 2014 I will take a serious look at this because I do want to help the state,” Autry said.

Autry, a Republican, said he had been approached by state Senate GOP leaders who told him their polling showed he could win the seat, even though the district is solidly Democratic.

Senate leaders were hoping Autry would run in the special election, which would be for the 16th Senate District as it was between 2002 and 2012. Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the district was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.

Because turnout is typically low in special elections, Republicans feel they have a good chance to take the district away from the Democrats.

But next year, the person in the seat must run again under newly drawn boundaries. That is the 14th state Senate District. The two districts are 88% the same, but Republicans say it would be tougher for them to take the seat because it would be a general election.

GOP leaders felt Autry, well known locally because of his Hollywood career and two terms of Fresno’s mayor, was the best person to win both this year and next.

On Friday, Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, former Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines and state Sen. Tom Berryhill made their pitch to Autry at a north Fresno Starbucks.

Autry said going into the meeting he was leaning against running, but Huff, Villines and Berryhill made some good points. He said he would think it over.

Word of Autry’s potential run sent local Republican leaders into opposite camps.

Former Fresno City Council Member Jerry Duncan, for instance, enthusiastically backed Autry and said he would make a great senator. But businessman Tal Cloud took the opposite viewpoint, and even authored a memo on Fresno’s borrowing during Autry’s mayoral terms. His conclusion: the city’s current financial troubles rest right at Autry’s feet.

Autry has kept mostly a low profile since leaving the mayor’s office. He hosted a weekday talk radio show for a little more than two years, leaving the air in December 2010 to return to acting and making movies.

This year, Autry has appeared in two episodes of the CW Network show “Hart of Dixie,” and Autry said today that he has been asked back for next season. In addition, Autry said he is filming a show locally called “Choices.” But his biggest current project, he said, is the mentoring program he started for youths at Fresno County’s juvenile hall.

Autry’s decision likely clears the way on the Republican side for Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak, who a week ago said he would run and who has been busy raising money.

In addition to Vidak, Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez – a Democrat – said Friday via Twitter that she is running. Florez is the mother of Dean Florez, who held the Senate seat before Rubio.

Besides Vidak and Florez, the only other person to say he is running is Democrat Alfred Benavides, a former Hanford Joint Union High School District trustee. But Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Fresno resident John Estrada have pulled campaign papers, according to the Fresno County elections website. Neither Ramirez nor Estrada list a political party – though Estrada has been a Democrat in the past.

Other names mentioned include Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, a former Rubio aide and newly elected Kern County supervisor, and Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, also a Democrat. On the Republican side, Kerman Mayor Gary Yep has said he’s looking at a run.

Perez, who is well liked by Democratic leaders, is expected to make a decision on a run next week.