Clovis is mostly white and that’s no accident, says group suing the city over housing

Desiree Martinez wants to live in Clovis, but she can’t afford it on a fixed income.

“It kind of sucks that I was good enough to be there when I had two jobs, but because of a domestic violence injury and being on permanent low income, I’m not accepted there,” Martinez said.

She tried to find a place to live in Clovis without success. Fresno County has an affordable housing shortage of 35,380 rental homes, according to the California Housing Partnership.

According to attorneys at Central California Legal Services, who filed a lawsuit against the city of Clovis in Fresno County Superior Court on Oct. 23, the situation in the city is against the law.

They allege Clovis failed to comply with state housing law and discriminated against low-income people and people of color by not properly zoning or planning affordable housing. The defendants named in the suit include the City of Clovis, Clovis City Council and Clovis City Manager Luke Serpa.

“Clovis didn’t get to be 70% white by accident,” said Patience Milrod, executive director of CCLS. “In many ways, because race and income are so linked, when Clovis says, ‘Hey, we’re going to zone in a way that only rich people can afford to live here,’ they are zoning in a way that only white people can live here. They cannot claim ignorance of that linkage.”

After the lawsuit was filed Wednesday, Mayor Drew Bessinger released a prepared statement to The Bee:

“The issue of affordable housing is one which is of great importance to all members of our community, including our City Council. We continue to work closely with the California Department of Housing and Community Development and the City is in full compliance with all regulations governing affordable housing.

“It is time to put a stop to the archaic and inflammatory assertions that Clovis is a community that welcomes only ‘rich and white’ newcomers. While it may make for a good headline, it is not reflective of reality and insults our community’s values and personal ethics. Our community of more than 115,000 is a tapestry of individuals made up of people from diverse economic, racial, religious and educational backgrounds. We welcome all who wish to call the City of Clovis home.”

City has ‘serious issues’ with housing

CCLS attorneys say they have been monitoring Clovis City Hall meetings for over a year and say the residents have encouraged city leaders to thumb their noses at housing regulations and requirements that would open the city up to low-income housing.

According to the lawsuit, Councilmember Jose Flores referred to the obligation to comply with housing law as a “hard pill to swallow” and a “burden” that would “lower the Clovis standard.”

City Councilmember Vong Mouanoutoua asked city staff whether there are “any cities who do not comply (with Housing Element Law) that we can look to, to see how they do it,” according to the lawsuit. CCLS says he mentioned Bel Air and Beverly Hills as examples.

Martinez’s attorneys want a judge to order Clovis city leaders to pave the way for low-income housing.

A court victory, Milrod said, would entail an order forcing the city to zone for and plan for low-income housing. But the real victory, according to the lawyers, will be building actual housing for low-income people who wish to live in Clovis, like Martinez.

“In the United States we have everybody,” Martinez said. “So in every town, we should have everybody.”

According to the lawsuit, Clovis needs to identify and zone for at least 3,829 affordable-housing units to comply with California law.

CCLS says the state Department of Housing and Community Development rubber-stamped Clovis’ plan to address the housing shortage. But, according to the suit, the city is still not in compliance with state housing law.

CCLS says Clovis’ current plan would not allow for an adequate level of affordable housing and the plan was intentionally written that way.

“There’s some serious issues that they’re going to have in terms of seeing large quantities of affordable housing built in the city based on the plans that they have right now, which are insufficient,” said Emilia Morris, legal director at CCLS.

For example, the city rezoned land owned and operated by Fresno State. According to the lawsuit, school officials have no plans to build housing on land used for agricultural education.

“This is about if you wanted to build in Clovis, what could you build?” Milrod said. “Because of the way they zone, it’s very difficult to find a place where it would be appropriate to build low-income housing. They have to fix that.”

Clovis has 30 days to respond to the complaint in court.

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