Written by The Business Journal Staff
The 5th annual San Joaquin Valley Affordable Housing Summit drew more than 230 participants — developers, representatives from local governments and community-based organizations and advocates for the underserved — to Downtown Fresno last week.
The theme of the daylong event, sponsored by the San Joaquin Valley Housing Collaborative and held at The Grand 1401, was “Housing as an Anti-Poverty Strategy.”
“Housing plays a major role as a foundation for upward mobility,” said Virginia Madueno, who delivered the keynote address at the summit, the biggest in the event’s history.
“How can we expect a person to get or hold a job if their bed at night is a park bench or river bank?” Madueno said. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that 47 million people in our country live in poverty. For too long, our Valley has been known as the home of ag — and the poor and uneducated. Part of the challenge we face today is changing that mindset.”
While summit attendees spent the day listening to presentations and updates from a number of speakers regarding innovative new programs and ideas to bring more affordable housing to the Valley, most acknowledged they were fighting an uphill battle.
“Fresno has 15 of the top 20 poorest census tracts in all of California,” said Ashley Werner, an attorney with Fresno’s Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “There’s no question that living in substandard housing negatively impacts people’s life opportunities.”
Madueno, president of IMAGEN, a Modesto-based public relations agency that develops grassroots public outreach strategies for private and nonprofit businesses, said she fears the Valley is increasingly becoming “a place of the haves and have-nots.”
“Councils and local boards up and down the Valley are not reflective of the diversity of our communities, a fact that continues to hold this Valley back,” Madueno told summit attendees.
But like many of the speakers at the summit, she remained upbeat, predicting growing affordable housing options combined with increased educational opportunities and better public transportation will work to transform the Valley.
“One day this Valley will be considered a mecca for all of California,” said Madueno, who has been traveling around the Valley working with local community colleges to “better tailor” their curriculums to help Valley youth become more prepared to enter four-year colleges — and the workforce.
Jenna Chilingerian, program manager at Fresno State’s Office of Community and Economic Development together with Alicia Sebastian, housing and community development director at the California Coalition for Rural Housing, coordinated the summit. Similar events have been held in Stockton and Bakersfield.
Among the topics discussed at breakout sessions throughout the day:
• How can affordable housing make a difference in community health outcomes?
• How can investing in affordable housing contribute to a community’s overall economic development?
• What role does affordable housing play in supporting employment and economic self-sufficiency?
During one afternoon session titled “Housing and the Environment,” facilitators Werner and Betsy McGovern-Garcia, program director of real estate development at Self-Help Enterprises, discussed how substandard housing is often correlated with concentrated poverty, inconsistent residential and industrial zoning and inequitable public investment.
McGovern-Garcia noted subsidized housing developments located near heavy industry, superfund sites or busy highways were much less successful than those constructed near adequate green space and public transportation.
“Subsidized housing is often located in neighborhoods with the highest levels of pollution — everything from air quality to water quality to proximity to industrial sites,” Werner said. “We need to do a better job of integrating our affordable housing and environmental goals.”
Kee Xiong, a summit participant who works for Los Angeles-based Pacific Western Bank, which makes commercial loans to developers of multi-family low- and middle-income properties, said the event was “a great place to network. I’ve met a lot of people here who will help facilitate our projects.”
Sophia Hartkopf was working at a booth set up to educate summit attendees about Pacific Gas & Electric’s energy-efficiency programs for multi-family housing projects.
“We do a lot of housing industry events like this,” Hartkopf said. “It’s a great way to meet face to face with our partners. And it’s also the ideal setting to get the word out about our programs.”