The Polymath of City Hall-Peter Brown

For more than two decades Peter Brown has been focusing on the local homeless problem.

by Randal Beeman

If the movie Caddyshack taught us anything, it is that golf is both therapy for the tired soul and a metaphor for the fundamental contradictions in life. Peter Brown tries to play a lot of golf. Peter Brown NEEDS golf, because Peter Brown is a busy guy who lives with a lot of contradictions.

As both the Code Enforcement Manager and Community Development Manager for the City of Ventura, Brown is a perpetual motion machine, fielding interview questions at his desk whilst answering emails, checking texts, and signing a stack of forms at his cluttered workstation. Brown, 53, a White Plains, New York native and a UCSB grad, is tasked with two seemingly contradictory missions.

For example, Brown’s Code staff recently had to play the bad cop and red tag (shut down) at 10 unit apartment complex near downtown because the owner had completed unpermitted renovations that were not up to code and unsafe for the (now at risk of being homeless) tenants. He points out that his Code Enforcement Officers wear kevlar vests on these ventures, and they have the same status as other law enforcement members, including extra penalties for anyone committing an assault on one of his team. Though the landlord has to pay two month’s rent, those tenants with fixed or modest incomes face finding an apartment in a tight marketplace with rents often reaching over $2000 a month for a mediocre unit. Peter Brown the Community Development Manager now has to play the good cop and work within the social and housing systems to help find these folks a place to live.

Brown notes that in a city of 107,500, a staff of only four Code Enforcement Officers (and their support squad of another 3.5 FTE’s), is overwhelmed by the weight of their duties, They deal with life threatening issues first and foremost, but his office also fields calls for plumbing and sewage violations, people camping in their cars, illgal signage on local businesses, stray basketball goals on a cul-de-sac, and complaints related to short term rental sites like Airbnb. Much of what concerns Brown relates to the dearth of affordable housing in Ventura.

Ventura County is one of the most expensive housing and rental markets in the nation, contributing to the homeless problem and making home ownership difficult for young families. A town known for slow growth policies, Venturans openly lament the lack of affordable housing for their offspring, Brown opines, while simultaneously opposing the construction of affordable multi-family units, especially if it impacts their particular neighborhood.

Brown’s passion and the bulk of his more than two decades working for the city has been focused on the local homeless problem, an issue upscale tourist oriented towns like Ventura have labored with for years – in Ventura with some modest success. The city’s official homeless count dropped from around 700 in 2011 to just over 300 in 2016, though Brown cautions the number will probably go up slightly this year.

The Safe and Clean Public Places Initiative, adopted by a very creative City Council in November 2011, seeks to link the homeless population with the drug treatment, mental health care, and social services support network in the community. With the Ventura Police Department Patrol Task Force leading the way, Brown and his team visit the sundry homeless camps on the fringes of Ventura. They specifically ask – “how can we help you out of this situation? What do you need?”

Brown emphatically states he does not make policy, he only implements policies directed from the City Council and City Manager. One project he hopes comes to fruition is Ventura joining with Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and the County CEO’s office to convince all of the communities of Ventura County to sign a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) stating that since social service agency laden Ventura and Oxnard are disproportionately impacted by the homeless problem, that the other cities step forward to ‘take care of their own’.

He brings out charts and statistics showing where police and fire vagrancy related calls for service are most frequent, and the hotspots in downtown and West Ventura concern Brown. Brown goes back to his computer screen as the phone rings and there is another knock at the door. And somewhere a golf ball fears its next encounter with Peter Brown.

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