When Katie Bradshaw gets the keys to her family’s newly built bungalow through the San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity in June, she knows exactly what she wants their first move to be.
“I know it’s super cheesy, but I hope my husband carries me over the threshold like in the old movies,” said Bradshaw, who along with husband Mark and two young children, are counting the days until they move into the sparkling new home from their rental, a small third-floor walkup.
The Bradshaws have been working side by side with Habitat’s construction crew and new neighbors — putting in more than 500 hours of sweat equity since 2015 — to construct nine total bungalows known as the Desiderio project, an enviable plot of land within view of the Arroyo Seco and the historic Colorado Street Bridge. Previously, the land was part of the 5-acre parcel known as the Desiderio Army Reserve Center.
“The bridge is so fun and iconic; when you go places you see photos of it, and now I’m like, ‘That will be our living room view!’” said Bradshaw, who moved to Pasadena in 2010. She works full time at the nonprofit Girls on the Run, and her husband is a reverend at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. “We love this city, everything about it, but never in a million years did we think we could afford a home here.”
The Bradshaws will join other families who, through SGVHH, will be given the opportunity to buy their own home with a 0% interest, 30-year loan, designed to cost no more than 30% of her family’s total income.
SGVHH is making a big push to help more families like them. Although the Azusa-based affiliate has built about 75 homes since its creation in 1990, new Executive Director Mark Van Lue has set his sights on some pretty ambitious goals, including doubling the total number of families they’ve served by July 2019. That means 100 more families in just one year and a half.
“Pasadena is one of the most difficult places to afford home ownership. It is a challenge finding opportunities, and that is getting even more difficult as time goes by. In order to have more impact and serve more families, we need to build more quickly,” said Van Lue, who took the helm at the local branch in July.
He addressed the local housing crises across Los Angeles County, where the lowest-income renters spend some 70% of income on rent, leaving little for food, transportation, health expenses and other needs, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Renters across the county need to earn four times local minimum wage to afford the median asking rent of $2,499 in Los Angeles County.
“We have got to broaden our reach; that means we’ve got to grow our capacity and our impact by broadening our models by which we create affordable housing,” said Van Lue, who sat down recently to discuss his new “bag of tricks” to confront soaring housing prices and SGHVV’s huge service area, which covers 31 cities and some 1.5 million people.
The director doesn’t have an easy task before him, he acknowledged, but he’s hopeful to bridge the gaps. Van Lue has about 19 years under his belt at Habitat for Humanity, coming most recently from the affiliate in Fort Worth, Texas.
First on the list: Breaking ground on multiple projects at once for the first time in order to speed up homes available and create construction synergies. Currently, apart from the Desiderio project in the final stages, they also are building six new townhouses in Glendale. By summer, he plans to start construction on four new homes in Pasadena; a two-home development on Manzanitas Avenue and another at the corner of Howard and Navarro Avenues.
The affiliate is also ramping up its home preservation program, designed to help low-income homeowners protect “home integrity” by doing much needed repairs, such as fixing a roof or replacing windows. That might also include making the house more livable by installing handicap accessibility like ramps or rails. It could also be as basic as fixing a dilapidated fence, landscaping or painting. This year, SGVHH will engage 35 homeowners with home repairs, and within three years as many as 150 homeowners per year.
“When we can build some new homes, but also help improve the other surrounding homes, it has a larger impact on the community. If you’re living in an area where the homes around you are in bad shape, it’s not very motivational for you to keep up your home either,” said Van Lue, who has noticed that while working in a more downtrodden neighborhood, by the time they are done, the neighbors also come out and start raking up the yard. “It definitely has a ripple effect.”
Having worked at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles as chief operating officer, Van Lue understands working in the jungle of Southern California. His experience abroad in Nepal, India, for Habitat for Humanity International also has given him a different perspective on housing, and life.
“That was a real eye-opener. I found it really challenged everything about the way that I lived and thought,” said the former carpenter, who, before working at Habitat owned his own remodeling company in South Bend, Indiana. Though an English major, Van Lue had learned of construction from his hands-on family — one of 11 siblings, his father built the family home from salvaged materials. “He never owed a dime on it.”
There was one bathroom, he said, and even that was added the year he was born in 1962. Before that, there was an outhouse. “It was just a tiny, tiny bathroom … it was an art form how we made that work, but we did,” he recalled warmly. “It’s funny but we didn’t ever think of it as poverty housing; you know, it was ours, and it was warm and dry.
“Maybe that’s why building housing that’s basic and decent really resonates with me,” he said.
Van Lue uses this background to understand the challenges of low-income housing. In Pasadena, he’s breaking out all the stops to increase the affiliate’s presence. That includes changing the way Habitat creates its housing models. Up to now, it has focused on building three-bedroom, two-bathroom models and then finding families who can best live there. But with the housing crises in mind, Van Lue said that needs to change, looking at for-profit partnerships with developers for mixed use/mixed income projects, condominium conversions and even “granny flats” or accessory dwelling units. He also wants to integrate some of the “tiny house” nation phenomenon that could help expand housing to single moms or to help low-income senior citizens live closer to their children.
“Let’s see what sticks to the wall here,” he noted dryly. “Let’s face it; home ownership just isn’t in the cards for everybody, but people still need a decent place to live, a good roof over their heads. If we want to increase our impact, we have to get more creative. It’s just simple math.”
While at the HHGLA, Van Lue also opened a separate nonprofit called Partnership Housing, which works alongside and for the benefit of Habitat for Humanity. He plans on doing the same thing for SGVHH, opening a separate nonprofit entity later this year that will focus on helping families find low-income rentals. That will also serve as a training ground for those who wish to someday become homeowners.
Van Lue’s excitement is contagious, said fellow staffer Frances Hardy, director of resource development. Hardy came from the New York Habitat affiliate just to work with Van Lue in her newly created position, she said.
“He has such an amazing reputation — I had heard about him and how much he helped the number of families served. Mark is an amazing boss and leader,” said Hardy, noting that Van Lue is a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy. Perhaps it’s his builder-background, she said, recounting that due to the affiliate’s growth, it is running out of administrative office space in the Azusa building.
“We were all wondering where my office would be … and he just said, ‘Oh don’t worry about that, I’m going to put up a wall here and split my office in half.’ And he did. And that’s just how he gets things done,” she said.
Also on Van Lue’s list: Increasing profit. Currently, SGVHH owns and operates two ReStores, home improvement stores and donation centers that stock items ranging from construction material to household appliances and furniture. One is located on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles, and another at its headquarters in Azusa. Together, they generated more than $2 million in sales, resulting in about $600,000 net profit this past fiscal year. Van Lue aims to open a third location in the next few years.
Incoming SGVHH Board of Directors Chairman Scott Carpenter said he’s looking forward to seeing what other new ideas Van Lue can bring to the table.
“We are really looking forward to working with him and finding more ways to broaden the scope and help more families,” he said. “Mark is very approachable and very experienced. He understands construction and building, he’s looking to streamline efforts and lower costs, to spread resources and provide more opportunities for volunteers as well.”
As for the Bradshaw family, Katie Bradshaw said her family already plans to continue building volunteer efforts with SGVHH long after moving into their home.
“We talk about it all the time. This is a lifetime partnership for us,” she said, noting that children need to be 16 years old to work on a job site at Habitat for Humanity. “We already know, when our children turn 16 they can work on a site, and how that will make a great rite of passage for them.”