Needed More Than Ever

Needed, HomeAid, Northern California, Oma Village, Novato, Oakland, XL Construction, Shea Homes, Ponderosa Homes, KB Homes, Lennar, Cheryl O'Connor

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The region recovers, but low housing supply and increased prices leaves lower-income residents struggling.


[dropcap]C[/dropcap]heryl O’Connor is executive director of HomeAid Northern California, a non-profit founded in 1999 as the charitable arm of the Home Builders Association of Northern California. HomeAid has built shelters for the transitionally homeless in nearly every county in the San Francisco Bay Area in collaboration with the homebuilding industry and its vendors, partners and suppliers. In addition to providing a safe, comfortable home, the shelters typically offer counseling and job training as core components of their programs. Prior to joining HomeAid in 2011, she ran O’Connor Consulting with a focus on management and marketing strategies for homebuilders.

TR: What is HomeAid, and how long has the organization been active in the Bay Area?

O’CONNOR: Formed 15 years ago as the charitable arm of the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, HomeAid’s mission is to build new lives for homeless individuals and families in Northern California. HomeAid accomplishes its mission through its role as a conduit between the building industry and service providers, spurring new partnerships that build and remodel housing and shelters for the homeless and people in need throughout the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. HomeAid has completed 25 housing projects valued at $14.5 million and collected labor and material donations worth more than $7 million.

Cheryl_Oconnor_019 copyTR: How did you become involved with the organization?

O’CONNOR: Joining HomeAid was a natural fit. I have worked in the home building business for more than 35 years, having spent the majority of my career in executive sales and marketing positions. When I was appointed executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area in 2008, I sat on the HomeAid board of directors and became an ardent supporter. When I was offered the HomeAid executive director position, I was thrilled knowing that I would have the opportunity to transform my many building industry relationship into even more housing for families in the Bay Area.

TR: What are some of your key projects here in the Bay Area? How large of a geographic area do you cover?

O’CONNOR: HomeAid Northern California covers the nine-county Bay Area. Our flagship projects include Oma Village in Novato, in partnership with Homeward Bound, and Nika’s Place/DreamCatcher in Oakland. Oma Village is a brand new contemporary, green, affordable housing project in Marin County that will house 14 formerly homeless working families in Marin County. Nika’s Place will shelter homeless teens and sexually exploited minors in a safe haven in Oakland. HomeAid and its partners also built the residences at Shepherd’s Gate shelter for women and children in Livermore, and construction is underway on the Mission Solano Bridge to Life shelter buildings for homeless families and individuals.

TR: How involved is the real estate community in the initiatives driven by HomeAid?

O’CONNOR: The HomeAid board of directors is comprised of the principals of most of the major home building companies in the Bay Area including Shea Homes, Richmond American Homes, Ponderosa Homes, Brookfield Homes, DeNova Homes, KB Homes and Warmington Homes. HomeAid also recently added more commercial and apartment builders to its governing board, including XL Construction and Lennar Multi-Family, which will help us build higher density project in the urban core.

In addition to serving on the HomeAid governing board, these industry leaders act as builder captains during the planning and construction phases of the shelter and affordable housing projects at no cost to the projects. The value of the contributions from builders, subcontractors and suppliers totals more than $7 million in donations since HomeAid formed 15 years ago.

To help the future residents of the new housing successfully rebuild their lives, HomeAid also partners with service providers including Homeward Bound and STAND! For Families Free of Violence, which provide services and support to the residents. The Building Industry Association of the Bay Area also gives us tremendous support with in-kind donations of rent and other support.

Most of the building industry leaders who make such significant financial and leadership contributions to people in need through HomeAid never publicize their efforts. But Bay Area communities should know that homebuilders are quietly giving back. I wish more people would truly appreciate how philanthropic the building industry is to people in need.

TR: As the economy around us improves and unemployment decreases, what effect does that have on your organization and the people it serves? Does the need for your services diminish or does it keep growing steadily?

O’CONNOR: We are fortunate to live in one of the most prosperous metropolitan areas in the world, and if you are in the higher income brackets, then you can afford to live here comfortably. But with that prosperity comes an even greater demand for HomeAid and its services. Here’s why: The region has created more than 300,000 jobs since 2011, but permitted only 62,000 additional homes. The restricted housing supply drives up home prices and rents, which leaves more lower-income people struggling to make ends meet. In other words, it is a lot easier to become homeless in the Bay Area than many people might imagine.

HomeAid partners with service providers that help people who have become homeless or are at risk for becoming homeless due to circumstances such as job loss, medical issues or domestic violence. They also help veterans returning from combat, domestic violence survivors, emancipated foster youth and families caring for a child with major health issues. HomeAid cannot build or remodel shelters and permanent supportive housing fast enough to meet the overall Bay Area need. And it is not only people in desperate situations such as the homeless who need affordable housing, either.

But no housing—affordable or not—is free. Asking the home builders and ultimately, the homebuyers, to subsidize the vast jobs-housing gap will only widen the affordability chasm further. John Burns Consulting just mentioned in a study that the city of Houston, Texas, built as many single-family homes last year as the entire state of California! And that is why homes in Houston are affordable to the majority. Ideally, the Bay Area would encourage every community to build more housing for all income levels, which would increase the supply, stabilize prices and improve affordability. We have created the problem we are experiencing in the Bay Area with our constrained supply and no-growth attitude.

Cheryl_Oconnor_022 copyTR: What are some of your organization’s priorities for 2015?

O’CONNOR: HomeAid Northern California builds and remodels five to seven projects each year and helps hundreds of low-income and homeless Bay Area residents with housing. Next year, HomeAid will focus on replicating in other communities its successful projects such as Oma Village in Novato to provide permanent supportive housing.

With major home builders’ support, HomeAid will seek to broaden the Bay Area conversation about solving our region’s housing deficit and truly provide housing for all. I have worked in all segments of the building industry, and I believe we can and should have meaningful collaboration between affordable housing developers, commercial developers, market rate developers and apartment builders to provide a menu of ways to build more housing. It has been done before. The BIA Bay Area compiled a white paper called “On Common Ground” in 2005 in partnership with the Non-Profit Housing Association that addressed ways to increase the housing supply. We need “On Common Ground 2.0.”

TR: What can the real estate industry do more in this region to support these goals?

O’CONNOR: The real estate industry can collaborate in cross-sector partnerships and include for-profit builders, developers, commercial developers and builders, affordable housing builders and apartment builders to come together with solutions to house Bay Area residents. Providing housing for all will not happen by simply adding impact fees to market-rate development, which just adds more cost to housing, raises rents and housing prices, reduces supply and does not get us to the solution of adding thousands of units. Housing for all has to come from a variety of ideas and sources, like cap-and-trade funding, state funding, public/private partnerships, regional funding measures and housing funds.

We have the best and brightest working here in the Bay Area. Why can’t we come up with solutions to the housing crisis? Housing is a social issue, and it is everyone’s responsibility. Our children and grandchildren will not be able to live here unless we find solutions. Why can’t we create something like Seattle did in 1981? Its voters approved one bond and four levies to create affordable housing, which has funded over 10,000 affordable apartments for seniors, low- and moderate-wage workers, and formerly homeless individuals and families, plus provided down-payment loans to more than 600 first-time homebuyers and rental assistance to more than 4,000 households.

TR: What are you looking forward to in 2015?

O’CONNOR: HomeAid is looking forward to completing two of its major projects: Oma Village will house 14 formerly homeless working families in Novato, and Nika’s Place will shelter 16 homeless teens and sexually exploited minors in Oakland. We wish it could be more. These projects are just a drop in the bucket compared with the need.

I am also looking forward to collaborating with the building and development communities to develop and implement ideas, and possibly legislation, to finally put a major dent in building more affordable housing and housing for all.

TR: What challenges do you anticipate having in the next year?

O’CONNOR: Capital funding for shelter development and affordable housing development remains limited, especially in the wake of the state’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies and a loss of $250 million in funding per year. HomeAid has helped fill the gap for the smaller service agencies and shelter providers, but we need many more funding opportunities. Affordable housing is both expensive to build and subsidize, and the residents may need supportive services for years. We need a permanent and reliable source of funding to take care of our most vulnerable residents or we risk becoming a region better known for its failings than its successes.

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