Movement seeks temporary housing solution

Movement seeks temporary housing solutionRebecca McCourt of IWVEDC (left) discusses transitional housing options with longtime resident Camie Keeter. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

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By REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

In February a message from the top-ranking civilian at China Lake identified an unconventional threat to our ability to support national security — the shortage of housing in the midst of the most aggressive hiring campaign in recent memory at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.

Joan Johnson, NAWCWD executive director, told the audience at the IWV Economic Outlook Conference that the lack of housing for an estimated 200 incoming new hires this summer keeps her awake at night. As that message circulated on both sides of the Navy fenceline, a local woman stepped up to offer a temporary solution.

“Growing up in this town, I know we are unique,” said Camie Keeter. Her family has lived here for decades, and including her children, is part of a four-generational legacy at China Lake.

“Our community is unlike anywhere else, and I think we are in a position to provide something that most other areas cannot.”

Keeter said that providing housing for new young professionals is just part of the challenge — the other half is helping them make a home once they get here.

“You hear that it’s easier to get people come here than it is to get people to stay here. How do we connect them to our community so they want to stay?

“This is not just about housing, this is about helping integrate young people into our community. I don’t think you develop an attachment to anything without having a relationship to it — this is a way of building that relationship.”

Her idea is that individuals, ideally under the umbrella of churches, service clubs and other civic organizations, can identify spare rooms, RVs, rental properties and other lodgings to offer incoming base employees for up to 30 days until permanent housing is secured.

Keeter said that in order for the service to work, it must free. “A lot of people don’t realize that these are kids coming straight out of college who don’t get paid until at least three weeks after they start work.”

A few weeks ago, she announced her idea at her place of worship, Ridgecrest United Methodist Church. The congregation loved the idea and immediately came up with eight rooms for the program.

Sam Haun, a former resident who happened to be attending the service during his latest visit to our community approached her afterwards. “He said, ‘This is not a new idea — when I came here in 1971 I had a host family. I am still connected to that family.’

“What an awesome way to build relationships!”

Keeter said she believes the program was disestablished during the long hiring freeze the federal government endured in the 1990s. But in the last couple of years, the base has been hiring up to 700 new people per year between replacing retiring employees and opening new positions.

In the short term, Keeter would like to find 50-60 rooms in the community. The IWV Economic Development Corporation has offered to serve as the “clearing house” for the proposed China Lake Airbnb.

“That way people can choose from staying with a host family from Knights of Columbus or Ridgecrest Musical Enrichment Society. Then they find more than a place to live — they get connected into our community. Maybe they try out for a play or find a place of worship or join Over the Hill Track Club in this process.”

Keeter said that by limiting stays to 30 days, families avoid the risks associated with California’s tenant laws. “We want to make this as easy for our hosts as possible.”

She is also working with the EDC to develop a “welcome committee” to solicit and gather donations of gift certificates, coupons and information about local businesses and service providers.

“We want them to know that we want them here.”

Ultimately, she said, she believes the endeavor to house new employees will depend on the involvement of private citizens.

“But we need the support of the business community as well. I would love to see the chamber getting involved.”

She is also looking for points of contact for local organizations interested in participating. “I’m sure I don’t know all the groups we have in town or who belongs to them.”

Keeter said that anyone who is interested in hosting a new hire should contact whatever service organization they have an affiliation with. Those clubs should then contact IWVEDC to get plugged into the network.

IWVEDC has forms available that allow host families to identify what amenities they have available (private room, bathroom, WiFi, etc.), how long they would be willing to host a new hire and whether they would be willing to host a couple or family.

“We are trying to work every angle to help solve the challenge of the shortage of living arrangements,” said Scott O’Neil, executive director of the IWVEDC.

“This is one way to provide just-in-time accommodations. It’s a great idea.”

O’Neil added that the EDC is making parallel efforts to facilitate long-term housing options. Several developers have indicated an interest in building projects in Ridgecrest, he said, and city staff has made a commitment to streamlining the permitting and planning processes in order to expedite construction.

But the timeline is tight. “Seasonally, the hiring push begins right after college graduations — which means people are going to start coming here in June,” said Keeter. “I would love to have our website up and running in May.”

Interested participants should contact Keeter at dckeeter@ gmail.com or 760-371-5918.

Story First Published: 2018-04-27