Supervisors approve ‘trailblazer’ homeless village

Reggie Ellis

Partnership between Self-Help Enterprises and Salt+Light is first of its kind in state, pilot for a new model for building affordable housing

TULARE COUNTY – A week after unveiling its new vision for homeless housing in Tulare County, the unique, nonprofit partnership between a homeless advocacy group and an affordable housing developer has taken its first step toward California’s first neighborhood built to house the homeless.

Homeless advocacy group Salt+Light Works and affordable housing experts Self-Help Enterprises presented its plan for a 52-unit mobile home park of homeless housing in Goshen to the Visalia City Council on March 15. Eight days later, the partnership went before the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to request approval of two items qualifying the project for the location and the funding to build the project, now called Neighborhood Village.

“So now we have two dynamic trailblazers standing before us and a marriage of Salt+Light and Self-Help and it’s just really incredible that the work you guys are doing and we’ll be doing in Tulare County,” Board Chair Amy Shuklian said. “This is just a shining example of what can be done in the community.”

The supervisors unanimously approved both items, a special use permit to build a mobile home park on 6.5 acres along Florence Avenue and Avenue 310 in Goshen and a regulatory agreement detailing income and rent restrictions for the residents and units.

The latter qualifies the project for 100% of funding needed for construction under the state’s Multi-Family Housing Program, a 55-year loan through the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) that likely will not be required to pay back.

The special use permit codifies the income and rent restrictions as conditions of approval for the life of the property. Aaron Bock, assistant manger for Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency, said the special use permit also allowed the county to bypass the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as an infill project in the area surrounding the unincorporated community of Goshen. This also helped Self-Help Enterprises apply for an infill infrastructure grant through the state which will help tie in the mobile homes to existing utilities lines at the nonprofit developer’s adjacent affordable housing projects Sequoia Commons 1 and 2, a 66-unit project which recently welcomed families to move in and a 72-unit project that just began construction. Self-Help is also expecting to begin construction on 89 single family subdivision in the area next year. Betsy McGovern-Garcia, program director for real estate development at Self-Help, said those projects were built with low-income housing credits, which can add 30% to the cost of constructing affordable housing projects due to strict state standards. Using a different funding mechanism for Neighborhood Village, allowed Self-Help to cut through red tape that extends the timeline for projects, adding to the cost as well. She said the partnership between Self-Help and Salt+Light should have all of its finances in order by December with plans to start construction by April and move residents in late next year.

“So it’ll be the first project in 20 or so years that Self-Help Enterprises has developed without low income housing tax credits,” McGovern-Garcia said.

McGovern-Garcia said the “creative mechanism” for funding Neighborhood Village is unique, not only to Self-Help but to projects being built around the state. In addition to HCD funding, McGovern-Garcia said the project will also convert all of the mobile homes into real property with traditional mortgage financing and leverage private donations raised by Salt+Light’s ongoing fundraising efforts. The mobile homes will be prefabricated offsite and then moved to the site where they will be hooked up to sewer, water and electricity.

“We’re anticipating the cost of the community will be about 50% of a normal stick built community,” McGovern-Garcia said. Stick built is a term referring to traditional subdivisions where homes are built on site.

McGovern-Garcia said this is somewhat of a pilot project for Self-Help using prefabricated homes, which could turn out to be a future solution to affordable housing issues in the Valley.

“Small remote areas that maybe don’t have large infrastructure could benefit from manufactured housing as an affordable housing solution,” she said. “So it is an opportunity to look at cost containment some of the rising costs associated with affordable housing development. And try a new approach to housing.”

Part of the requirements of the new funding is that the mobile home park units not just be affordable, but extremely affordable. Under the agreement and permit, seven units must be rented to residents at 30% of Area Median Income (AMI), 10 to those at 45% and 32 to those at 50% of AMI. The average per capita income for Tulare County was $21,380 in 2019. That means those living at the village will pay between $159 and $267 per month in rent, including utilities, based on the formulas in the affordable housing agreement between Self Help and Tulare County.

Adrianne Hillman, founder of Salt+Light Works, said some of the rent will be covered by housing vouchers, of which Tulare County has more than available housing units, but much of it will come from residents taking advantage of job placement programs or helping create one for them. In addition to the programs like the city of Visalia’s ECO, which pays unsheltered residents to clean up streets with the possibility of graduating to full-time employment in the public works department, Salt+Light will also offer “dignified income opportunities” such as paying for some to help with onsite maintenance, or creating art and woodworking to sell on their own.

“It will require some skin in the game as folks have to pay rent, and we’re going to ask them to create purposeful work for themselves through our services,” Hillman said.

The project will consist of 31, one-bedroom units, and 21, two-bedroom units, both of which will be under 400 square feet. Three of the units will be reserved for missional residents. Selected by Salt+Light, missional residents are the “glue in the community” and will help coordinate events, foster relationships within the community and to be the liaison between the community and outside entities.

“Those are the folks who are mitigating arguments and those things that might come up between neighbors,” Hillman said. “It’s kind of like the neighborhood watch program.”

The community will also include 73 parking spaces, a 5,000 square foot unity hall, a dog park and a memorial garden. The unity hall will not only be a community gathering place it will also have a commercial kitchen for large events, provide work spaces for residents to start their own micro business and offices for local service providers to meet with residents privately. Services will include case management, behavioral health, health and wellness, financial literacy and budgeting, economic development and job training.

“We’re thrilled about that we want to put Tulare County on the map to say that we are doing something really serious about homelessness that will be permanent, that will help folks settle and heal,” Hillman said.

A big part of healing will be the memorial garden. Hillman said the garden will include pavers with the names of residents who pass away while at the community so they can be remembered by the neighbors, as well as friends and family who come to visit.

“The loneliest things for folks living on the streets is that they know that they will die in an undignified manner, in an unmarked grave and uncelebrated life,” Hillman said. “And so that Memorial Garden really is a beacon of hope for folks who have had that catastrophic loss of family who have had that loneliness have had that lack of connection so that they know that they will be celebrated not only in life in our community, but also in death.”

Supervisor Eddie Valero said he appreciated the project’s efforts to treat the homeless with dignity, through its treatment of the residents as property owners, helping them find purposeful work in life and helping keep their memory alive in death.

“Dignity is very important for me, because it makes sure that people feel included, it makes sure that people feel supported, and it makes sure that people feel appreciated, especially in a world that can often seem isolated,” Valero said.

Supervisor Pete Vander Poel asked how Salt+Light will select who lives at the innovative village.

“Are you going to drive a bus around the community and just try to pick folks up,” Vander Poel asked facetiously.

Hillman said Salt+Light has been operating a mobile food truck to meet residents where they are, which has given the non-profits an opportunity to know many of the areas unsheltered population, hear their stories and build a relationship with them. As a permanent supportive housing project, she said most of the resident referrals will come from Tulare-Kings Homeless Alliance, Tulare County’s Continuum of Care for homeless, which manages a database of unsheltered residents and issues vouchers for housing.

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