California’s affordable housing crisis has forced countless residents out of their homes and neighborhoods. As an unfolding drama in Ojai reminds us, elected officials are not immune.
Suza Francina, 74, was first elected to the Ojai City Council in 1996. She has held her current seat for the past seven years. But like so many Californians, Francina has found it impossible to continue living in the place she once called home. She lost her rental housing when the property was sold to a new owner and she hasn’t been able to afford a new place since.
Francina is now living in a friend’s garage outside of the Fourth District she represents. That means she’s violating residency requirements and must be forced to vacate her seat, a Grand Jury report concluded.
But Francina and her supporters say it’s not that simple. She has declared herself homeless. Is there — or should there be — an exception to the rule?
Ojai’s city attorney seems to think so.
“The applicability of these requirements is unclear when a City Councilmember has classified themselves as homeless within their district and when the precise facts of the Councilmember’s residency status are uncertain,” he wrote in response to the Grand Jury report.
Francina says she’s fighting an unjust law. She wants the city to amend the ordinance so that people like her can keep their seats.
“If they do not amend this ordinance, only homeowners will feel secure on the council. That’s unethical,” Francina told CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff. “You will not have a diverse council if they do not amend this ordinance.”
Ventura City Councilmember Liz Campos has expressed solidarity. She too was recently homeless. She was forced to live in her van within district boundaries to get onto the City Council. If it comes to that, Francina says she’ll move into a vehicle too.
Like the Ojai community, Francina’s colleagues are divided on whether or not she should be allowed to serve. Fortunately for the councilwoman, they recently voted 3-2 to direct city staff to draft an amendment to the ordinance. Whether it will hold up to legal scrutiny is another question.
What’s certain is that Francina is “a living, breathing example” of California’s housing crisis, as her friend Dee Reid said at a June 13 meeting. For elected officials, it’s a crisis hitting closer and closer to home.