Life in Las Casitas, hidden housing in Newbury Park

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Architect Hugo Martinez with his wife and collaborator Christin To in front of their home in Thousand Oaks, CA. Hugo grew up in Las Casitas, a neighborhood in Newbury Park. He sees Las Casitas as a stepping stone to the American Dream. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

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 people who work 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, Sonic Trace producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortes visited in Newbury Park talking to residents, neighbors, families to find out what brings immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras to suburban Southern California. For many of these families, Las Casitas is a stepping stone to the American Dream.

Listen to the radio story here:

Newbury Park is next to the city of Thousand Oaks. Like Thousand Oaks, it’s a wealthy suburb. A single-family home in the area ranges in price from $250,000 to $2.2 million. In fact, the only affordable housing in the area is found at the Conejo Creek Condos in Newbury Park, also known as Las Casitas.

Avenida del Platino in Las Casitas, Newbury Park, CA.

Las Casitas is made up of what appears to be huge, cookie cutter houses. But when you take a closer look, you make out four doors and see that they are each 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).

Las Casitas floor plan (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

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).

One Plan FourPlex 2/1

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.

Jackson Cruz is a resident of Las Casitas. He sent this photo to his hometown in Huetamo, Michoacán, Mex. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

America Yeresma Villanueva Nava grew up, lives and works in Las Casitas and she 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 thereNavia came to Newbury Park, CA 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 seventy or eighty immigrants. She says it’s her life’s purpose to give recent arrivals a home during their first months and years in the US.

Navia Ortiz sublets to eight people in her Casita. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

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 2000’s, 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.