Roberto and Lucila Rodriguez talk about how much better their new living conditions are at the Villa Hermosa Aparments compared to their old cinder block apartment at the Fred Young Labor Camp in Indio.(Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
INDIO – For more than five decades, Lucila and Roberto Rodriguez lived in a small cinder block apartment at the Fred Young housing complex for farmworker families on Dr. Carreon Boulevard.
The place — which lacked central air conditioning and heating — was unbearable in the summers and so cramped that the two couldn’t walk through the apartment side by side. At one time, the couple slept on the living room couch so their three kids could rest comfortably in two tiny bedrooms.
But the Rodriguezes recently moved into a newly-constructed two-bedroom apartment down the street with immaculate carpeting, freshly-painted walls, larger rooms and ample living space. It’s the first time they’ve owned a dishwasher.
“The other apartment was so small. Here we feel better. We are much more at ease,” Roberto Rodriguez, 93, said in Spanish. “Now everything is different.”
A large window spilled natural light into the living room, where the couple sat. A portrait of their children, now fully grown, hung over them.
Conditions for the Rodriguezes and 84 other farmworker families changed drastically in late January, when the families moved out of the dilapidated complex and into a new housing development at 83-801 Dr. Carreon Blvd.
The development will replace the old farm labor camp that was built in the 1930s and was once home to Coachella Valley officials such as Indio City Manager
Dan Martinez and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella.
It’s the first time the living conditions at Fred Young have improved since the 1960s.
The Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, city officials and several other agencies celebrated the first phase of the new apartment complex — named the Villa Hermosa Apartments — in a gathering on Monday morning.
While for many years the Fred Young Labor Camp was synonymous with substandard living conditions, gang activity and extreme poverty, the Villa Hermosa Apartments mark a coming of age for the city and for the families of Fred Young.
For residents, the affordable, decent housing represents a chance to overcome poverty.
“This creates a whole new life for them,” said John Mealey, executive director of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. “It’s a world of difference for the people that have lived in these cinder block homes for years.”
The mustard-colored complex includes a community center, a garden, seven playgrounds, washers and dryers in each unit, private patios, a computer lab and several enrichment programs such as English as a Second Language and computer literacy.
Rents will be set at $263-$864 per month, depending on income.
The first phase of the complex replaced 85 units at the labor camp at a cost of $23 million. An equal amount of the old white cinder box units will be torn down within the next six months.
U.S. Bank’s Community Development Corp. was the largest donor, investing some $10 million, for which it received tax credits, coalition officials said. U.S. Bank also provided a $14 million construction loan to the housing coalition.
The Riverside County Economic Development Agency provided a $1 million construction loan.
An additional 120 units are expected in the second phase of the replacement, to be completed in less than five years.
That phase could cost about $35 million, though the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition still needs funding to complete it, Mealey said.
“This development represents the investment made by multiple agencies to build a better community for the city,” said Sylvia Montenegro, board member for the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition.
Montenegro remembers riding her school bus as a little girl and passing Fred Young, back when people pitched tents during their stay at the labor camp.
“Right here lived ‘the other people: The Mexicanos and the poor whites,’ ” Montenegro said as she stood in a courtyard at the new complex. “Generation after generation has lived here.”
Built in the 1930s, the Fred Young Farm Labor Center was originally meant for single migrant farmworkers as temporary housing. At the time, the complex had one-room wooden shacks. Eventually, families began to move into the units.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development had the wooden shacks removed and paid to build the existing 253 cinder-block units. In the 1980s, the complex was turned over to the Indio Housing Development Co. The Coachella Valley Housing Coalition took the reins in 2007.
“It’s incredible. It’s an amazing impact on the community,’ Montenegro said. “Some of them have carpeting for the first time.”
Reporter Tatiana Sanchez can be reached at (760) 778-6443 or Tatiana.Sanchez@desertsun.com