Housing First Inc. merged with St. Vincent De Paul last Wednesday night in a celebratory gathering, with board members signing official documents and handing off a ceremonial key. Housing First ran solely on community support for 20 years, so they are excited about joining forces with St. Vincent De Paul and fanning the flame to provide low income housing in Juneau. Both organizations’ humanitarian efforts have improved lives over the years by realizing dreams of safe shelter, despite incomes. They believe that a stable home is the foundation of success for community members.
First up on the agenda is applying for Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s GOAL program with project “Home Run.” GOAL will infuse up to $7.6 million into Juneau by awarding the winning project a combination of federal and state housing funds. St. Vincent de Paul’s Home Run project will provide up to 45 units of housing for low income families if their innovative design for the units in the valley is selected as the winner of the competition. AHFC will announce the award recipient on May 20.
Housing First’s Executive Director, Jen LaRoe, will be retained through the merger. She is excited by the prospect of the union to address the issue on a larger scale.
“It will take what was started as a small grass roots effort and advance the agency into a larger entity that will be strengthened by the collaboration,” said LaRoe. “Other Alaskan communities have strong and viable affordable housing developers, and Juneau needs to advance in this area....I think a larger entity is needed to get development going and keep it going.”
Housing First’s mission to develop affordable housing in Juneau started more than twenty years ago in 1990. A handful of concerned citizens, including Jon Egan, Eve Reckley, John Doogan, Don Gotschall, Diane Rooker and Jean Ann Alter, started meeting at the downtown library and the Northern Light United Church to discuss the lack of affordable housing in Juneau and ways to house low income families. Kathleen Strausbaugh, Robin Gilcrist, and Marty Weinstein joined later, and current board president Jennifer Klein and Vice President Sandy Oliphant have served in their respective positions since 2002.
Egan said the initial meetings were, “productive because there were several voices saying we should be able to do something about this; this is a community with resources and committed citizens.”
After brainstorming, pooling resources and combining professional expertise, Housing First, Inc. was born. They incorporated as a non-profit in 1991 and elected a volunteer Board. They have since pared down their vision statement to, “All individuals have the right to the equal opportunity for safe, affordable and sanitary housing regardless of income.”
The newly incorporated non-profit faced a steep learning curve, but they dove enthusiastically into their mission of building affordable housing for lower income families. The seven-unit Strasbaugh Place Apartments downtown were completed and occupied by 1993. Egan said the experience was surreal, like they had climbed Mt. Everest.
“I walked around the apartments as they were doing the final touch-ups and I thought, ‘How did we do this? Just two years ago this was an idea,’” said Egan, speaking from his home in Maine. “We never had any paid staff, we didn’t have an office, a lawyer kept our papers in a drawer at his office. We just had energy and diligence.”
Their first paid staff was administrative assistant Stephanie Hoag, hired in 1994. She later served as director.
They started working on their next development in 1995; Egan said the experience gained on the first development made the second one much easier.
“We were professionals,” he said with a laugh. He said the initial push was the hardest, “Once there was a little momentum the wheel started to turn, and then support came, and helped keep it turning.”
In 1996 they opened the 15-unit Hillview Apartments on Douglas. Then in 1997 they built and sold two affordable homes. Those were followed by the development of the Treadwell Prospect houses. Phase I was worked on with help from Juneau Housing Trust.
Dan Austin, General Manager and Director of St. Vincent de Paul said, “Housing First Inc. shares the same commitment to affordable housing for low-income households and St. Vincent de Paul seeks the merger in order to ensure that Housing First Inc. work will continue in Juneau for a very long time.”
St. Vincent de Paul will increase their portfolio of housing properties, which LaRoe says is very important in the changing climate around low income housing.
“There will no longer be a guarantee of a Section 8 voucher or other government subsidy,” said LaRoe. “St. Vincent de Paul will be gaining an experienced and motivated staff with the ability to step in and hit the ground running. We have some excellent Board members with a wealth of experience as well. Jennifer Klein is the current Board President and she will join the St. Vincent de Paul Board for a temporary period to ensure smooth transition of the merger.”
“Merging Housing First Inc. properties into St. Vincent de Paul will enhance its economy of scale, allowing for quality management and maintenance at a lower cost per unit. Those savings are passed on to low-income households,” said Austin.
Joining the St. Vincent de Paul Board for full term appointments will be current Vice President to Housing First, Alexander “Sandy” Oliphant, and Secretary Joan Decker, who was previously the Executive Director of the Glory Hole. These board members bring a wide range of experience in housing and social services.
The obstacles to home ownership for this population are still primarily financial: lack of low-priced houses, incomes too low to qualify for a loan and lack of a down payment.
When the Housing First group first began meeting, the vacancy rate of downtown apartments was 1 percent, which Egan said put landlords in a position to charge top rates while a 3 to 4 percent vacancy rate keeps things competitive.
Egan says not much has changed since 1990. Egan, who was the Executive Director of the Glory Hole when Housing First was in its preliminary stages, said, “Essentially we saw a growing problem with numerous rental units being demolished, no new production and rents going up. There were potential pieces from various places in the community to help homeless and people being priced out of their housing, but without a stock of affordable rentals, it was very difficult to coordinate those services. Hence, we needed to start with ‘housing first’.”
Most development projects require about eight funding sources to get off the ground. That is in addition to affordable land in a desirable location, contracts with engineers and designers, volunteer project teams, and applicant screening and qualifying. The City and Borough of Juneau used to have a dedicated position to address the affordable housing issue and actually issued $125,000 to Housing First in 1991, but there haven’t been any more funds since then.
The first seven apartments on Gastineau Avenue were funded by combining a city grant of $106,000, a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle for $59,500, a tax credit of $110,000, a 30-year mortgage with Alaska Housing Finance Corporation for $233,900 and a Housing First loan of $54,100.
LaRoe said new development was the key to keeping the Housing First Inc. business model working. She said the company shifted much of its focus to providing secondary forgivable loans for home ownership, through the Home Opportunity Program in 1999, but they needed the creation of new developments to keep the doors open.
When Housing First administered the HOP program, they provided 87 homebuyers in Juneau and Sitka with more than $1,250,000 of loan funds from 2000-2003 and from 2007-2010, they helped 33 families with more than $890,000 in assistance.
Egan, who now works as the Director of Housing Development at Coastal Enterprises in Maine, says developments are much harder to create then when they first started out 22 years ago.
Housing First Inc. created windows for lower income people like the homeless, the elderly, people with physical and/or mental disabilities, minimum wage earners and service workers to buy or rent homes.
Removing people from transitional, temporary and emergency housing and helping them get into a permanent place of their own can empower them. Their lives are more stable, they can get and hold jobs and then stop using welfare assistance. More homes create more community.
Egan thinks the merger will be successful because St. Vincent de Paul is a good organization.
“They are a seasoned group, with a good foundation in Juneau’s community. From a founder’s perspective, I would only offer them a wish to not be afraid to look up the steep hill of certain projects. Its always amazing what comes together to propel you forward,” said Egan, who also has great faith in Juneau.
“The group’s formation and its initial success is a direct reflection of Juneau and the richness and depth of the community,” Egan said. “Twenty-three years later, I still tell the story of how this handful of folks built an affordable housing project on less than a shoe string. It still brings a smile to my face.”
On May 18 from 4-6 p.m there will be a celebration of the 20 years of Housing First, a public event at the Northern Light United Church put on by the current board members.