Santa Paula Times

Affordable housing leader Rodney Fernandez dies at 68

October 25, 2013
Santa Paula News

By Peggy Kelly 

Santa Paula Times 

For a man on the petite side Rodney Fernandez had strong beliefs and a tenacious nature that led to him becoming a giant of nonprofit affordable housing and earning him the nickname of “Fearless”.

“When you look at his stature he was just this stick,” said longtime friend and associate Jesse Ornelas. “Rodney couldn’t harm a fly, but his ideas were so bold and he had the ability to carry them out because he had no fear, he was fearless.”

Rodney who helped start Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. in 1981, died at sunrise in his Santa Paula home Wednesday with his wife Melinda by his side. Rodney had lifelong respiratory problems and had been dependent on oxygen for years, and his condition had worsened in recent weeks. He was 68 years old.

His October 23 death came nearly two years after he retired from the nonprofit CEDC that 32 years ago began serving Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and provided hundreds of units of affordable housing-and a strong support system-to those in need.

Ornelas, a CEDC project manager, first met Rodney in the mid-70s and they have worked together since 1978 starting at a predecessor to CEDC.

The two men first worked on Cabrillo Village in Saticoy: “We worked to modernize it, it was circa Grapes of Wrath but we also increased the housing stock with new construction,” before moving on and forming the new company to take affordable housing countywide.

Ornelas said that during Fernandez’s leadership of CEDC, “He became a giant in nonprofit affordable housing,” with the company creating 661 for-sale units, building and managing 973 apartments over 22 properties, and providing opportunities for first-time homebuyers through a counseling and loan program.

In addition, Rodney oversaw the creation of programs for largely farmworker tenants and their families from English classes and homework help to study centers and childcare facilities.

In Santa Paula CEDC also created the Santa Paulan with about 150 apartments for low-income seniors as well as Rodney Fernandez Gardens-named in his honor when he retired and the gardens a nod to his passion as a master gardener-with 90 apartment units.

The company also built other units in the city aside from the namesake development that became the focus of controversy and even lawsuits that were later settled. 

Rodney’s tenaciousness and fearlessness impressed even those who opposed CEDC projects. And even critics of CEDC had to admit that CEDC housing was well managed, attractive and most importantly served an important purpose of providing affordable housing to those that need it most.

Rodney’s efforts were recognized nationally: he received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National NeighborWorks(r) Association (2011), the “Alice McGrath Warrior for Justice” award from the Ventura County Mexican American Bar Association (2010), the KCET/Union Bank of California Hispanic Heritage “Local Hero of the Year” Award (2007); a Pioneer Award by Rural LISC (2005); Humanitarian Award by Latino Town Hall (2002); and a James A. Johnson Community Fellow Fannie Mae Foundation Award (1999) among others.

“Rodney was known and admired, revered and respected in the industry,” said Ornelas. “He helped create policy in that area. He was a visionary, an idea kind of a guy,” that unlike some carried it through.

“He had the ability to formulate it, legitimize it and carry it out.... he had a good staff to help him that he inspired to work beyond what they believed was his capacity. He knew they had more,” to give of their talents and skills.

“I am incredibly sad,” said Jennifer Gordon, CEDC communications manager. “Rodney was not only a brilliant leader and visionary, but he was also truly one of those rare individuals who deeply cared about each person he met, whether it was the President of the United States, or the person who was washing his car. Everybody was equally important to him.

“He was not only my boss for six years, he was a mentor and friend,” who noted Gordon, “was truly one of a kind.”

A native of Gallup, NM (he was born July 28, 1945) Rodney’s family moved to California when he was a child due to his severe asthma. He became the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year university and obtain a masters degree.

He began working for the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency in 1968 before moving to Ventura County in 1973. It was when he was with the Ventura County Human Relations Commission that Rodney tried to help settle a dispute between a group of farmworkers and the owners of the labor camp in Saticoy, Cabrillo Village that started him in the affordable housing industry.

But he also made time for numerous causes and community groups encompassing advocacy for farmworkers and Latino Town Hall to being a director of numerous organizations and nonprofits-some on the national level-including the then Santa Paula Memorial Hospital. 

“Politics aside,” said Ornelas, “at the end of the day there are so many people that are so grateful for where they live because of Rodney.... “

Aside from his wife Melinda and social causes Rodney’s other passion was the outdoors and fishing.

“We would go to the Sierras, to Baja to fish.... I have memories of when he caught that marlin,” a huge fish, “A beauty of a catch,” that Rodney proudly posed for a photo with before releasing it back to the waters.

“He just loved fishing and of course he was very close to the late Rey Sepulveda.... he and Ray and their wives Melinda and Catherine loved to go backpacking, he loved to be one with nature, loved the Sespe Gorge. That was how he escaped.... and he did it religiously until he longer could.”

About five years ago Ornelas said Rodney returned to the Sierras although he was “concerned his lungs might not last, but he was fine, enjoyed it.... “

The kid who grew up in Eagle Rock where his parents owned a dry cleaning business also loved Ventura County and especially his adopted hometown.

“He knew Ventura County was paradise and where he wanted to live the rest of his life and he chose Santa Paula, he really loved Santa Paula,” said Ornelas.

“Rodney believed Santa Paula was the jewel of the world. I don’t blame him,” noted Ornelas, also a city resident. “It’s a beautiful place.”

Melinda met her future husband 32 years ago when a temporary agency sent her to CEDC.

“He was wearing a paisley jacket with fringe and flip-flops and I was looking at his feet thinking ‘my god this is an executive director!’ when he caught me looking at his toes and he started wiggling them. I saw this twinkle in his eye,” and it was the beginning of their relationship that included marriage six years later.

Rodney was always more concerned for others: “He always looked out for everybody else to make sure they had what they needed to be successful,” said Melinda.

Even in his final days when a Hospice associate was visiting Rodney questioned her about her life and living arrangements and whether or not her children were college bound.

“He let her know if she helped he would get it for her.... “

 Melinda said his main goal in creating housing was so that children “would have a good place to grow.... he did so much and he did it all with dignity and charm,” never letting on how ill he was.

“He was the world’s best at covering up how very, very sick he was,” his entire life, including his first 10 years when had to receive daily injections due to his allergies to most everything.

“Rodney loved Santa Paula, it was his home,” and the couple often “proudly” wore hats noting their hometown when out of town.

“When people would ask about Santa Paula we would tell them about the hot air balloons, Cruise Nite, the murals, the festivals, the theater.... people would say they thought Santa Paula was just avocados and lemons.”

Melinda said Rodney died “I was singing love songs and cowboy ballads to him with a little birdie outside singing backup,” as the sun came up over Santa Paula.

That people were not aware of the area that, “Rodney called the Santa Paula Mystic,” because, said Melinda, “he knew it was really paradise and nobody knew it.”

His brother David of Los Angeles and Aunt “Greg” Ortiz of Eagle Rock, numerous cousins and a legion of friends, also survive Rodney.

Services are pending and will be announced. 

Memorial donations can be sent to: Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., 702 County Square Drive, Ventura CA 93003. Please indicate the donation is for the “Rodney Fernandez Community Building Fund”.