OJAI — On a pleasant June evening, in the airy chambers of the quaint Mission Revival city hall, the council gathered to discuss the fate of one of their own.
It was more than a year since Suza Francina, a longtime councilmember in this small arts- and wellness-oriented town tucked into a mountain valley in Ventura County, lost her rental housing. Now she was staying with a friend outside her district as she struggled to find a new place to live. A recent grand jury report had concluded she was violating residency requirements and should be replaced.
When the meeting began, Mayor Betsy Stix pleaded with the assembled dozens in the audience, gray hair and glasses abounding, to commit to civility, respect, peace and love. “In our community, we can take the higher road and stop the finger pointing,” she said. “I’m going to urge everyone to just come together.”
Then the recriminations began.
One supporter of Francina’s read a poem declaring the city council “brought shame on our town and they have let us all down.” A caller invoked the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, suggesting democracy was at risk if Francina was allowed to keep her seat. Another councilmember angrily pushed back on rumors that he and his wife had filed the complaint that sparked the grand jury investigation. Stix herself quoted Jack Smith, the special counsel who indicted former President Donald Trump for mishandling classified documents, to assert that the law should apply equally to everyone.
The proceedings were infused with the high drama typical of local politics, where every decision can become freighted with existential meaning.
This time, however, it felt perhaps true — a glimpse into a California that is increasingly out of reach, where the lack of affordable housing has distorted every facet of society and where millions of residents who once lived comfortably suddenly find themselves on the margins while those on the margins are pushed onto the streets.
“She’s a living, breathing example of the problem they are in denial about,” said Dee Reid, one of many friends of Francina’s who attended the June 13 meeting to speak on her behalf.
As the debate ticked past three hours — motions and countermotions and questions to the city attorney and then some more — Francina made a moral appeal to her colleagues: Consider her situation as a matter of justice for a renter who has fallen on hard times.
“Do you think Rosa Parks felt she was disobeying the law? I mean, look at all the laws that were changed through public protest,” she said. “There are absolutely numerous exceptions to upholding wrong laws. And this is a wrong law. It doesn’t work in reality.”
‘Here’s Our Reward. We Can’t Afford It’
For 67 years, Suza Francina has lived in Ojai. The gregarious 74-year-old moved from Holland as a child, sponsored by the family’s Pentecostal church, and arrived in a valley covered in orange orchards, as her father prophetically dreamed. After spending the 1967 “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, she settled back home, teaching preschool and yoga, writing and raising a family.
For more than a decade, Francina has served on the city council. An advocate for environmentally friendly building standards and more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in this bucolic burg of 7,600 people, she is also the liaison to the county animal shelter and transportation commission.
And for the past 18 months, Francina has technically been homeless. When the house she rented for more than eight years sold in November 2021, the new owner kicked her out to remodel, leaving her with exceedingly few options.
Like so many California communities that rely heavily on tourism and that have historically attracted newcomers with the promise of convenience and contentment, Ojai is becoming too expensive even for many of its longtime residents. Housing development never kept up with demand, while guesthouses that once provided a more economical option are being converted into vacation rentals in spite of a local ban. With fewer young families able to settle in the city, the school board recently voted to close three schools due to declining enrollment.
“It’s ironic,” said Francina, who remembers renting her first home for $75 per month. “We worked so hard to preserve it and here’s our reward. We can’t afford it.”
If she hadn’t been worried about maintaining her district residency, Francina might have left Ojai altogether, moving in with her daughter or to cheaper housing outside the city limits. Her district — 2.2 square miles south of the highway that cuts through town — includes the golf course, the famed Ojai Valley Inn and city hall, but few apartments. A low-income development on the outskirts has a years-long waiting list.
Nevertheless, Francina had no interest in giving up her seat on the city council. She enjoys playing her part in preserving the beauty and small-town character of Ojai. She says it’s important to have an old-timer like her, who knows the history and the residents of the community, helping to make decisions.
“I’ve sat in apartments not in my district and thought about it long and hard,” Francina said. “But I took an oath.”
Hopeful leads for new homes evaporated because the rent was too high or they didn’t accept dogs — Francina has two — or the landlord backed out at the last minute. At one point, as she became more desperate, Francina nearly fell for an online scam where someone pretended to rent out a house they did not actually own.
“Finding a rental is like having a part-time job,” she said. “It took me almost a year to realize that what I was looking for doesn’t exist in my district.”
In the meantime, Francina put her things in storage, declared herself homeless and moved into a 140-square-foot room above the garage at a friend’s home, high up on a hill at the edge of Ojai.
The “cabin,” as she dubbed it because it felt like camping, had a killer view of the valley and no kitchen or shower. It was also across town from her district — but Francina figured she had taken sufficient steps to maintain her residency while she continued to search for a new place to live.
“It’s a gray area. It would be better if I was sleeping in my van,” she said. “But I did not rent a nice comfortable apartment in another district.”
‘Only Homeowners Will Feel Secure’
The issue of Francina’s living situation exploded last month, when the Ventura County grand jury published a report that determined an unnamed Ojai council member had moved out of their district in December 2021 and failed to establish a new residency there within 30 days, thereby vacating their seat under local ordinance.
The grand jury recommended that the city council immediately appoint a replacement until another election could take place — or, if the council member refused to step down, seek permission from the California attorney general to file a “quo warranto” lawsuit, a proceeding to determine whether someone has the legal right to hold office.
Francina had been awaiting the report since last fall, when she met with the grand jury. It’s unclear how she came under investigation, though she had never hidden her housing troubles and she was interviewed in local media about it. Keith Frost, foreperson for the Ventura County grand jury, declined to comment.
Ojai officials had 90 days to respond. A letter drafted by the city attorney rejected the grand jury’s conclusion — “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” — though Francina hoped for further action.
She wanted the city council to amend the election code so that she could definitively keep her seat while she searched for somewhere else to live in her district. Political opponents were using her housing insecurity to push her off the council, she argued, and the ordinance had become a tool of discrimination against the voters who elected her and renters more broadly.
“If they do not amend this ordinance, only homeowners will feel secure on the council. That’s unethical,” Francina said. “You will not have a diverse council if they do not amend this ordinance.”
Francina likely wouldn’t be in such a conundrum if Ojai didn’t choose its city council by districts, a recent development and an unusual one for such a small community. Each of the four council districts, which elect their representatives for staggered four-year terms, has fewer than 1,400 voters. The mayor is separately elected citywide every two years.
Ojai officials reluctantly agreed to adopt the system in 2018 to avoid a costly and protracted lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, a 2001 state law that gave minority groups greater leverage to challenge at-large elections that might dilute their voting power.
The nonprofit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project alleged that Latinos, who make up about 19% of Ojai’s population, did not have a reasonable opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice under the existing at-large system. Only one Latino had ever served on the Ojai city council, for a single term from 2012 to 2016, attorney Kevin Shenkman wrote on behalf of the organization in their 2018 demand letter. A spokesperson said the city does not track councilmembers’ ethnic identifications.
As the city council moved to approve a districting process, which would still require paying up to $30,000 in attorney’s fees for the plaintiff, Francina publicly called the situation a “rip-off.” She was subsequently elected to her third term in 2020, the first Ojai election with districts.
Shenkman said he has pursued similar cases in more than 100 jurisdictions — cities, school districts, community college districts, hospital districts — over the past nearly dozen years, sparking criticism from opponents that he is simply after a payout.
Though he did not remember the specifics of why the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project targeted Ojai, Shenkman said he only goes after jurisdictions where “we see a violation of the Voting Rights Act going on” — and he vigorously denied that the resulting district system bore any responsibility for Francina potentially losing her seat.
“I don’t really see this as being much of a voting rights issue, as much as some of these counties having these standing grand juries that sometimes go off the rails,” Shenkman said.
“Perhaps we should be asking why there is no available, affordable housing in this part of Ojai,” he added, blaming wealthy homeowners who dominate local politics for blocking efforts to develop more rental units throughout the community. “I would say it probably has a lot to do with decades of at-large elections and the decisions that come from that.”
‘It’s Bizarre That She’s Alone in a Cabin’
Behind Ojai city hall, in a community garden, is a homeless encampment where at least half a dozen older people live in tents among the trees.
Francina, who has met regularly with the campers to help connect them to services, stopped by before the council meeting as she waited to find out how her colleagues would respond to the grand jury report.
“We’ll be there tonight supporting you!” one man shouted from his truck as he drove past.
Katie Albert had other concerns on her mind. She was much like Francina — nearly 74 years old and displaced last year when the woman she was living with told Albert she didn’t want a roommate anymore.
Albert’s husband had died seven years earlier and she had no children who could take care of her. Her savings were used up, and without a place to live, she couldn’t run the baking business that had supplemented her Social Security payments. A volunteer who had told Albert she could help her move out of the tent wasn’t returning her calls.
“It’s a f—ed tent. It’s a f—ed life,” Albert told Francina, who tried, as she often does, to defuse the situation with a smile. “It’s nothing to smile about. You have a cabin.”
Francina assured Albert that the city council was developing transitional housing for homeless people in Ojai.
“How many years will that take?” Albert shot back.
“We’re working as fast as we can,” Francina said.
“I need something in two weeks,” Albert said. “In July and August, it’s going to be 90, 100 degrees. I can’t physically, emotionally, I can’t handle it. I’ll be dead, which is where I want to be, is dead. Dead. Dead.”
Alone later, Albert wondered why Francina didn’t just move in with her daughter, who lived nearby in the Ojai Valley. Albert, who was raising money through GoFundMe to get back on her feet, would have been glad to take her place. Francina had previously turned her down when she suggested that they search for a home together.
“It’s bizarre that she’s alone in a cabin,” Albert said. “I think she’s f—ing insane.”
‘the Situation Has Gone on Long Enough’
For Ojai residents who have been following Francina’s saga closely, whether she’s actually homeless is a particular point of contention. It’s been a frequent topic of debate on Facebook, where some critics accuse Francina of trying to hang onto her seat because her political benefactors need her vote on development matters before the city council.
Her opponents at the recent meeting, who numbered far fewer than supporters, pointed out that Francina still had a roof over her head. To them, it was an open-and-shut case; she was violating the residency requirement.
“The situation has gone on long enough,” resident Drew Mashburn told the council, urging them to appoint a replacement. “The rule of law and democracy for all of us should not be sacrificed for one individual.”
Francina frequently notes that there are many types of homelessness. It’s a broad category, for anyone who lacks a stable and permanent residence. That includes people sleeping on the street, in their cars, on a relative’s couch — and, she argues, in a room above a friend’s garage while they look for a rental.
The “cabin” is smaller than some closets. There’s a chest of drawers with a rack of clothes perched on top in one corner, and a toilet in another. Francina has a mini fridge, a rice cooker, a water heater and a coffee maker to prepare basic meals. Her Australian shepherd, Honey, and her chihuahua mix, Benny, both of which she rescued from the shelter, are never more than a step away.
“They always want to eat my food. I can’t get away from them. I have to eat outside,” Francina said. “I’m constantly stepping on Honey, her little paws.”
Her friend installed air conditioning last year, because the room could quickly reach stuffy triple digits, and built an outdoor shower a few months ago. But it’s far from a glamorous life. A desk squeezed next to her bed barely gives Francina space to spread out and write.
Not that she’s not grateful. Before the “cabin” became an option, she practiced sleeping in her van. It had made a tremendous impression on her how living in the homeless encampment could launch someone, especially an older person, on a “downward spiral.” But she had a room, free of rent.
“I don’t consider it a hardship. It’s an inconvenience. A hardship is a refugee camp,” Francina said.
“The stress comes from not being allowed to settle in here and make it permanent,” she added. “I’m not allowed to make it a home.”
‘if You Have Wealth, You Have Power’
When the city council meeting opened public comment on its response to the grand jury report, first to the microphone was Liz Campos, who wore a black baseball cap with LOVE emblazoned across the front.
Campos, a city council member in neighboring Ventura, was also recently homeless. She had been kicked out of the house she rented for more than 11 years after her landlord sold it in October, just a month before she was elected to her first term.
Intent on continuing her campaign but unable to find any affordable, wheelchair-accessible housing nearby, Campos moved into her van and parked it in the driveway of a friend who resided in her district. She had been living there ever since.
“There’s always been that strange, unwelcoming sense that if you have wealth, you have power,” she said. After her own experience, it felt even more important that Francina be allowed to continue serving on the council in Ojai as a voice for the rest of the community.
“The disenfranchised ones, who are the ones without money, are the least likely to be allowed to participate,” Campos said. “And yet sometimes it’s the ones with the least that have the most to give.”
Things have gotten so tough for renters in California that, in the past few years, the balance of power has finally begun to shift. A 2019 state law establishing a cap on skyrocketing rent increases and expanding eviction protections for tenants was a monumental victory in the Legislature after decades of deference to landlords, though real estate interests still maintain considerable influence.
In October, a small group of lawmakers established the first renters caucus to elevate a voice that is often missing from policymaking. They are just five of 120 members, in a state where tenants make up nearly half of residents, far higher than the national average. Several dozen legislators are landlords.
Assemblymember Matt Haney, a San Francisco Democrat who leads the caucus, said the housing instability and transience of renters — especially compared to the deep-rootedness of homeowners — can make it difficult to build the connections they need to run for public office. They may also face stigma, he said, from voters who believe that renters contribute less to their communities or fear the change they bring.
“Renters don’t feel represented very often in elected office and feel that the elected bodies are not always reflecting their experiences and needs,” Haney said. “There are huge challenges and a need for policy solutions for renters. For millions of Californians, there ain’t nothing going on but the rent. It’s their top issue.”
The renters caucus endorsed five bills this session, including measures to limit security deposits to no more than one month’s rent, expand building inspections and create a state affordable housing authority, which are still moving through the legislative process.
Haney said Francina, and other elected officials like her, should be given a grace period to sort out their residency issues. Her situation, he said, echoes the struggle many Californians face remaining in the communities where they work or their kids go to school or their families live because they have become so expensive.
“The lack of ability to do so because of housing has a huge consequence on people’s lives,” Haney said.
‘There’s No Need to Make All This Trouble’
As the tense council discussion on the grand jury report dragged to its conclusion, it appeared that Francina would get her way.
An ally had proposed retroactively changing the existing ordinance so that a member of the council who lost their housing through no fault of their own could maintain their seat until the end of the term. The city attorney said he could prepare language for consideration at a future meeting, though it might be vulnerable to a legal challenge.
“It’s not just about me,” Francina told her colleagues, asking for their vote. “It’s about any elected official that is a renter and could be displaced at any time.”
Meanwhile, the recommendation to ask the state attorney general for permission to file the “quo warranto” lawsuit, whereby the city would be able to determine whether Francina had a right to hold her office, was falling by the wayside over concerns about the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The mayor was not pleased.
“I feel for you, Suza. I mean, it’s rough, and I’m really sorry that you have been put in this position,” Stix said. “On the other hand, it’s a legal question in my mind, not a question of compassion.”
To maintain a civil society, she said, it was critical to follow the rules: “It’s our obligation as a council to uphold the law.”
Francina said she would buy a camper van and park in her district if she had to. But she hoped the city council would resolve the issue quickly, rather than dragging it out in further legal proceedings. There was so much more important work to do. She thought she had another promising lead on a house for rent.
“There’s no need to do this. There’s no need to make all this trouble,” she said.
By a vote of 3-2, the council adopted the motion directing city staff to draft an ordinance amending the city election code. Francina breathed a deep sigh of relief and broke into a grin.
For now, she could return to her cabin on the hill. For now, she would still be a city council member in Ojai.
About the Author
Alexei covers Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature and California government from Sacramento. He joined CalMatters in January 2022 after previously reporting on the Capitol for The Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he broke the story of Newsom’s infamous dinner at The French Laundry restaurant. Alexei is a Bay Area native and attended Stanford University. He speaks fluent Spanish.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.