Many Mansions, many dreams
Thousand Oaks nonprofit opens doors for those who need it most
By Daniel Gelman 06/13/2013
A new housing development radiates an aura of hope and possibility. Who will live there and how will their stories play out? But what happens if half of them are homeless, including the mentally or physically challenged, and the other half are barely keeping their heads above water? Hillcrest Villas, the product of affordable-housing corporation Many Mansions in Thousand Oaks, is the setting for its latest experiment in nonprofit social welfare.
Susan, a mature woman from Simi Valley, was still reeling from the shock of living in her car for three years. After being diagnosed with a serious illness, her husband had left her. Depression had overtaken her life, and a foreclosure on her house had left her in the street. She put her name on the Many Mansions waiting list behind 1,000 people and began dreaming of a remote second chance.
But Hillcrest Villas was then merely a concept and a piece of land. The former Thousand Oaks Redevelopment Agency brainstormed with Many Mansions to target the needs of the homeless and others in transition at the Stoll House property. In 2007, Many Mansions purchased five parcels of land at 2736 E. Hillcrest Drive near the corner of Skyline Drive, with the help of a $7 million loan from the city. But construction did not begin until 18 months ago. (California dissolved redevelopment agencies in 2012.)
Fast-forward to an emotionally spent, but joyous, Susan living in her own apartment with two therapy dogs and furnishings she bought at Goodwill. She’s approaching the experience with optimism and a can-do attitude. Susan is grateful for the opportunity to get her life back on track with the help of several on-site services. “I want to get involved,” she told the VCReporter.
Half of the 60 units are reserved for the homeless, and the rest for low-income families and individuals making 30 percent to 60 percent of the local median income of $86,700 for a family of four. An individual can make as much as $36,720 and a family of four can earn $52,440. Five buildings contain one-, two- and split-level three-bedroom apartments. There are a library, kitchen, computer room, conference room and administrative offices in a sixth building. Rents range from $457 to $1,350.
Eduardo Arias is 48 and hails from Mexico. He’s been in and out of the U.S. since the ’70s and attained citizenship during the Reagan era. He lived in Villa Garcia, a Many Mansions property in Thousand Oaks, for eight years with his wife and four children. He speaks perfect English and has a daughter graduating from high school. He works part time as a waiter at a restaurant, and his wife is starting a job as a hotel housekeeper.
Arias hopes to stay at Hillcrest Villas for life. Regarding sharing with the former homeless, he said, “I’ve got no problem. I get along. I can help them out.” He cherishes the opportunity to live in a new property. “Not everyone has this chance. I’m a lucky one,” he said.
“It’s a very complicated process with lots of verification,” said Rick Schroeder, president of Many Mansions. After verifying income, the screening is for candidates who want to help themselves. “We make sure they can live independently and there are no drugs. This is not assisted living,” he said. Half of the apartments reserved for the homeless, however, must house at least one person with a mental disability.
But to Many Mansions, housing is not the final solution to systemic poverty. At Hillcrest Villas, it will sponsor a homework club, summer camp, financial literacy classes, case management, college counseling, job resources, a parenting club and a food share program.
“We cannot force people to use our programs. There’s nothing we can do to compel them,” said Schroeder.
Julia is doing everything she can to improve her situation. Her story also began in Mexico. She relocated to the U.S. in the early ’90s, and became a U.S. citizen in 1998. In the early 2000s, she married and returned to Mexico. Her husband was abusive and wound up in prison, while Julia returned to America with two of her three children, who are citizens.
Julia ran a house-cleaning business before working full time in a factory in Thousand Oaks for 16 years. She is studying for her G.E.D. and has lived in Stoll House for the past 18 months with her kids. According to Fiona Kilner, VP of services for Many Mansions, “Julia is a wonderful caring person and has been an asset and role model at Stoll House. I know she will continue to show these attributes at Hillcrest.”
Schroeder says nonprofits are the modern alternative to public housing. “The government decided to let people who have an expertise and interest in this field take over the building and management of these communities,” he said. They also focus on upkeep to avoid urban decay.
The $26 million used to build Hillcrest Villas came from multiple sources including charity and loans and from U.S. Bank, the city, and the state. Many have low interest and some are “forgivable loans,” meaning payment can be postponed during a bad year.
You must be a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident to live at a Many Mansions property. Fifty-seven percent of their residents are Hispanic, but immigrants are not required to disclose details of their naturalization. “The screening we do is pretty stringent,” said VP of Housing Development Alex Russell. But he said they are not using the “E-Verify” system of Social Security numbers because the city does not require it.
“We all make some bad choices, and many of us are one bad choice away from needing help,” said caseworker Susan Callahan. Many Mansions is decidedly nonjudgmental. Its mission is to break the cycle of poverty. Community leaders started it in 1979 as a rent subsidy service. There are nine properties in Thousand Oaks, three in Simi Valley and two in Oxnard, accommodating more than 1,000 people.