(Photo Credit: Nadine Ono/CA Fwd)
When Stephanie Church moved into her new apartment at the Heritage Square complex in Pasadena, it marked the first time in many years that she had her own home.
“I was living with friends who offered me their couch, their porch or whatever,” said Church, who is an administrative intern with the City of Pasadena. “They had to assist me trying to make sure I was safe. And it was difficult to be almost 60 years old and to be homeless. It was horrific.”
Church worked for 15 years as an administrator for a local drug treatment center where she oversaw a $250,000 budget. After being laid off in the early 2000s, she moved to Phoenix, until she was laid off again during the 2008 financial crisis.
She moved back to Pasadena, but could not find a job for eight years until she was placed with the city through the Senior Community Service Employment Program operated by SER National, which trains and updates job skills for low-income, older workers, partnering with local nonprofits and government agencies.
She worked for the city for a year before she told anyone she was homeless. Once her co-workers found out, they encouraged her to apply for a spot at Heritage Square, a new affordable housing complex for seniors. Selected by lottery to proceed to the interview process, Church was eventually granted one of the 70 one-bedroom units.
“I never shall forget it. On November 10, I got the phone call and they told me 'Congratulations, you passed everything and would you come in and sign your lease,'” recalled Church. “So I called everybody. I cried. They cried. We all celebrated.”
The project, which opened late last year, was developed by Bridge Housing with funding from the City of Pasadena, California Community Reinvestment Corporation, California Tax Credit Allocation Committee and Wells Fargo. The city also required that at least 20 percent of the hiring, subcontracting and procurement for the project be local. This resulted in nearly $6 million added to the local economy, according to the city.
“The units are for very-low-income seniors,” said William Huang, the city’s director of Housing and Career Services. “Many seniors in L.A. County are not doing well. Incomes have not kept up with market-rate rent increases for many years, especially for those on fixed income (e.g., social security).”
More than 1,500 people applied to live in the complex, where the rental rate is 30 percent of adjusted Household Income with no minimum income requirement.
Heritage Square is a step in the right direction, but only puts a dent in Pasadena’s housing crunch. There are more than 23,000 households on the city’s Section 8 waiting list and, according to the city’s website, there are only 2,173 units of affordable housing. Match that with the increased construction of luxury apartments where one-bedroom units can rent for as much as $2,300.
Huang said the city is working toward creating more affordable housing. “We have simply been implementing a lot of best practices for many years including Inclusionary Housing, Housing First, permanent supportive housing, preservation of exiting affordable housing projects, VASH vouchers (for homeless vets), Non-Elderly Disabled vouchers, combining historic and low income housing tax credits, etc.”
Pasadena is also trying new programs including the use of New Market Tax Credits to develop affordable homeownership units (Pasadena was the first in the country to use it). The city also started the Real Change Movement, a donation program using old parking meters placed throughout the city.
“I can point to two things as indicators of the success of our work. Pasadena, along with Austin, Texas, was awarded the 2014 Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Award by the Urban Land Institute for the best housing policy in the nation,” added Huang. “The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2016 Report on Hunger and Homelessness looked at 32 cities in 24 states from 2009 to 2016, and Pasadena was rated number one for reduction of overall homeless population and homeless families.”
The city’s work has made a difference in Church’s life. On the day she moved to Heritage Square, she gathered her possessions in a pushcart and walked it to her new home.
“I was walking down the street and people were passing me in their cars,” said Church. “And I’m sure they’re thinking, look at the little homeless lady with her stuff on Thanksgiving Day, not realizing I was taking that cart around the corner to my brand new apartment building. Brand new, nobody had lived in it before me.”