Success story: Second phase of Santa Rosa affordable housing project proposed

Ortiz Plaza II will consist of 38 units and will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units.|

A proposal to build affordable housing in any neighborhood raises at least some hackles.

There’s always those who like the project, but don’t feel it’s right for the area. Or there’s the people who want to do something for poor people but “not here.”

Thomas Stuebner, CEO of California Human Development, based in Santa Rosa, has experienced NIMBYism in all its forms over the years. And he’s learned to be a good neighbor.

So when his nonprofit wanted to build an affordable housing complex for farmworkers and other lower-income people in an unincorporated area near Santa Rosa, he and his staff anticipated objections and worked closely with neighbors and the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

The 30-unit, two-bedroom apartment complex on Old Redwood Highway was approved and completed four years ago. It sold out immediately and has a waiting list.

The project was called Ortiz Plaza, named after one of three Latino men who founded the nonprofit 51 years ago, George Ortiz.

A social worker, Ortiz used to bring food to farmworkers who literally lived in the fields in the 1960s. He advocated for farmworkers and started California Human Development in 1970 to try to help them.

“We need to address the whole needs of an individual, and that’s how we got into housing, in response to the need,” Stuebner said.

The California Human Development Administration works on several fronts: jobs and job training, encouraging immigrants to become citizens, disability services, substance recovery and affordable housing. It operates across the state and has a presence in 31 Northern California counties.

Ortiz Plaza was “one of those rare success stories,” Stuebner said, and now Ortiz Plaza II has been proposed.

It will consist of 38 units, be built on adjoining land and will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Parking will be included, so no one can complain about people taking up street parking.

To limit noise coming from the complex, they designed the apartments facing each other, Stuebner said.

The organization, which is funded by a combination of government grants and sponsorship by large nonprofits (for Ortiz Plaza II their partner is Volunteers of America), is expected to house some larger families but some single adults as well. Because of a recent delay in their partner’s ability to purchase the land, construction on Ortiz Plaza II may not start until 2024, Stuebner said.

Ortiz Plaza, which is 30% farmworkers, is income-restricted, attractive, clean and quiet. And its families want to keep it that way.

“We’re happy here, and it’s good for our son,” said Leandro Parra, 48, through a Spanish translator. “We have no trouble with our neighbors.”

His wife, Veronica Flores, 38, said they both work in the vineyards and are supervisors. They were ecstatic to be one of the first to move into Ortiz Plaza four years ago when it was brand new. They had been living in an overpriced older condo with no air conditioning, she said.

The couple, whose income has gone up some but hopes to stay here, says they enjoy the project’s amenities, including a community room they can rent for big gatherings.

During a visit, Parra played with his children, Isaiah, 5, and Veronica, 3. It was almost 9 p.m., so the kids needed to get to bed so their parents could have a little time before they had to go to sleep and wake up at 6 a.m. for their jobs at Dos Viñas Vineyard in Healdsburg and Windsor.

Lulu Rayas, 30, and Max Aguilar, 31, are an immigrant success story. He was born and raised in Santa Rosa, but when the family was deported when he was 11, the family had to move back to Jalisco, Mexico. He had trouble with writing Spanish in school, and had to adjust.

But one great thing happened: He met Rayas in Mexico, and they married in 2016 and soon moved to Santa Rosa. She was trained as a doctor, but needed to jump through several hoops to practice in the U.S.

Aguilar found work at a wine grape nursery. The only place they could afford to rent was a backyard trailer for $700 a month.

Then his father told him about the California Human Development Administration, where he took English and welding classes. “Mijo (son), they can help you,” he told his son.

When he called the nonprofit, he discovered that they offered classes, including counseling to help his wife learn English and take classes to become certified as a doctor here. Later they called and told him about Ortiz Plaza, two-bedroom apartments that would cost them $750 per month. Ramirez applied to live at the complex, which was under construction in 2017. It was a happy day when they were accepted, they said.

“I drove there and looked at them being built and thought, ‘This will be our first home,’ ” he said.

Two months after they moved, they found out Rayas was pregnant with their son, JJ, now 3. Perfect timing, they said.

“I can’t imagine raising a child in a trailer,” Aguilar said. “If we didn’t live here we couldn’t have afforded an apartment without her working. And, my wife had to spend money on materials for courses and flights back and forth to Mexico.”

“It’s a great place to live, and when you walked to your car to go to work in the morning, everyone was smiling and waving,” Aguilar said.

Their circumstances have since changed. Aguilar has a new position as a maintenance technician related to low-cost housing, and it pays better. Rayas will start a medical residency program in June, and soon their pay would disqualify them from living at Ortiz Plaza. So they’ve moved to housing that comes with his new job and he was invited to sit on the CHD board.

“Ortiz is a stepping stone for people to grow,” Aguilar said. “We had the opportunity to grow and now the community will have a doctor.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at

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