Friday, May 24, 2013

Turning a military base into affordable housing here in Pasadena: how Jill and other housing advocates made this possible

This past weekend, Jill and I were invited by Habitat Board member Herb Rim to a gala fundraising event at the Pasadena University Women's Club put on by Habitat for Humanity of San Gabriel Valley. Habitat is building 9 homes in a former military base called the Desiderio Army Reserve Center and needs to raise $2,889,142 to complete this project.

We were excited to be part of this event since Jill played a significant role in making this project possible. Jill and Herb discussed ways to involve the religious community in the new Habitat project, which makes sense, since this project couldn't have happened without the support of churches.

When the Desiderio Reserve Center was about to close, developers wanted to exploit this prime piece of real estate for profit, but Jill and other housing justice advocates saw "a golden opportunity to create affordable housing."  They knew that the "Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. . . made serving the homeless the first priority for use of all surplus Federal properties, including military installations."

Even though the law was clear, it took a tremendous amount of work and community organizing to convince the city to follow the law and make the land available to Habitat for affordable housing. This story is told in Jill's book "Making Housing Happen," excerpted below.

John Kennedy, new Pasadena City Council member
After this fundraiser, we went to another gala party at the Central Public Library to celebrate the election of John Kennedy to the City Council. During his campaign John met with Jill to discuss affordable housing issues, and purchased her book. In his speech he made reference to Jill's concern for this issue:

"It will also be my mission to work with you [community leaders] in addressing yhe affordable housing crisis in Pasadena. Let's take bold, yet fiscally responsible steps to ensure peole who grow up here and who work here can also afford to live here."

As the story below makes clear, it isn't always easy to persuade the City Council to do the right thing when it comes to addressing the needs of poor and low-income people. We hope that John Kennedy and others will fulfill their promise and do what it takes to ensure affordable housing for those in our city who need and deserve it.
Habitat for Humanity: An Organizing Success, with a Compromise

When we learned that the Desiderio Army Reserve Center in Pasadena was scheduled for closure in 2011, those of us concerned about the homeless were thrilled. In 1987 Congress enacted the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act which made serving the homeless the first priority for use of all surplus Federal properties, including military installations. We saw this base closure as a golden opportunity to create affordable housing.

In 2006 developers and various nonprofits came together to envision how this highly desirable 5.1 acre property could be used to benefit the city. After tours of the site and rousing discussions, proposals were drafted by various groups. Some developers ignored the law and proposed upscale projects. The Union Rescue Mission, keenly aware of the need for permanent affordable housing for the homeless, presented a proposal calling for a large number of low-income rental units. Habitat for Habitat made a more modest proposal calling for only nine housing units for those of moderate means.

Those of us committed to affordable housing were torn between these two proposals. Many of us preferred the Union Rescue Mission’s plan to address the needs of the homeless. We were dismayed that Habitat proposed such a small number of units, and that they benefited only those of moderate income. But we decided Habitat was astute in offering a compromise that would be palatable to this upscale neighborhood because it was lower density and homeownership, not rentals.

I asked the city attorney at one of these meetings how we could justify only nine units for people who were not necessarily homeless when the Act clearly specified that the homeless should be prioritized. He replied, “All that matters is that we keep in our minds the needs of the homeless. We don’t necessarily have to comply with this Act.” I couldn’t believe my ears and was bewildered by his response, but at the time I felt I had to trust his political acumen.

When the concept designs of Habitat and other top contenders emerged, we decided we would stand behind Habitat despite our concern that the homeless should be a priority.

It soon became obvious to me that God was orchestrating plans for Habitat’s approval. At the annual banquet of our local ecumenical council, I was called to the podium unexpectedly to give a challenge to the churches to come out and support Habitat’s cause. At other pastoral and church alliances, such spontaneous opportunities presented themselves. By the time the city was ready to hear Habitat’s proposal, over 50 churches were represented at City Council meetings to express their support.

To dramatize this support, we painted big cardboard signs spelling out each letter of “Habitat” in bold red and black letters. Whenever Habitat’s name was mentioned during the city council meeting, we all silently stood up in unison in the back two rows, lifting up the letters on cue. This became a powerful message that deeply impressed the city council members.

It also became a tool to transformation for David, a youth I had been helping to leave a gang and return to high school. Rather than tagging buildings, he lifted one of the Habitat letters to help get approval for affordable homes.
When he and I walked out to the lobby, there sat fifteen youth from his high school, all part of a mentoring program. They had come to learn how the system works. They begged David to join their program and that was the key that motivated David to go back to school.

Habitat was approved, but when the plans were sent to HUD and the Department of Defense (DOD), they were not approved because they didn’t include plans for the homeless. Our housing director Bill Huang was able to use another site in the city to satisfy the HUD’s and DOD’s requirement that space be provided for homeless housing and services. Today the nine Habitat homes are successfully working their way through the pre-development phrase and fund raising efforts.

The lesson we learned is that compromise is sometimes necessary to make housing happen. We didn’t create affordable housing for the formerly homeless, as we hoped, but we did help Habitat gain approval to build moderately priced homes in a wealthy community that would not have tolerated rental units for low-income. We also learned that if churches work together, we can make a difference

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