California Forum

Homeless people need jobs and housing. Here’s how Sacramento is doing both at the same time

A formerly homeless graduate of the Sacramento nonprofit Women’s Empowerment speaks emotionally at the 2016 commencement. The organization has partnered with the Institute of Real Estate Management's REstart program to train homeless women to be on-site property managers, giving them both housing and jobs.
A formerly homeless graduate of the Sacramento nonprofit Women’s Empowerment speaks emotionally at the 2016 commencement. The organization has partnered with the Institute of Real Estate Management's REstart program to train homeless women to be on-site property managers, giving them both housing and jobs. Sacramento Bee file

Two years ago, Miriam Wheatley was running out of hope. She was living in a homeless shelter, working at a dead-end job, and desperately trying to figure out how to support herself and her young son.

“I just plain didn’t have enough money,” Wheatley told me. “It didn’t matter that I had experience or that I had graduated college. I didn’t have enough money to pay rent.”

Many Californians in her situation would have ended up right back on the streets, their children in foster care. But on Wednesday afternoon, I watched Wheatley, dressed to impress in a royal blue suit, walk across a stage at the Mack Powell Event Center and become one of the first people in Sacramento to earn a certificate in property management through the REstart pilot program.

Her path from the shelter to that stage was a circuitous one, but in it, I believe there's real hope for a significant subset of California’s increasingly unwieldy homeless population.

Too often, when we talk about the twin catastrophes of homelessness and housing, we get stymied by the scope of the problem or stake out our positions on the solutions and refuse to budge.

We argue over the viability of rent control. We rant about the unjustness of evictions. We debate about the best way to increase the supply of housing, whether that’s building higher, denser, closer to transit stops or farther out into our pristine wilderness.

REstart bypasses all of that. In fact, it’s ingenious in its simplicity.

Created by the Institute of Real Estate Management, the program capitalizes on a California law that requires any apartment complex with 16 or more units to have someone living on site representing the owner.

That means anyone who takes a job as a property manager automatically gets an apartment along with a paycheck.

For someone like Wheatley, who is living in a mold-filled, 690-square-foot “box” of an apartment down the street from the shelter where she lived for two years, this sounds like godsend.

“I’m still struggling to pay rent,” she said, “because they keep increasing it.”

The same goes for Elizabeth Goodwin, another graduate of REstart, who spent years couch-surfing and living on the streets. She is now living with about a dozen relatives in a three-bedroom house that is in such poor condition that the floor is caving in.

Other graduates are sleeping in their cars.

If this solution sounds a bit far-fetched, consider that the demand for property managers is high and only getting higher. The rental market is booming, with fewer Americans owning their homes than at any point in the last 50 years, according to Pew Research.

This is particularly true in California, where homeownership has become a pipe dream.

The state has nowhere near enough housing to meet the need and so prices are sky high. This has created a relatively new subset of “economically homeless” people who are on the streets, not because they are too too mentally ill or drug addicted to live a normal life, but because they can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads.

There’s some irony in all of this, of course. The same industry that caused so many of these women so much hell is now likely to be the source of their salvation. The volunteers who put in so many long, heartfelt hours teaching these women the tricks of the real estate trade should be commended.

To developer Nikky Mohanna, behind the 19J high-rise going up at 19th and J streets in midtown, this program is a win-win, and the thinking behind it is exactly as it should be.

“I really do believe that as developers, given this crisis, we have a huge duty and a responsibility to come up with a solution that benefits us all in the long term,” she said. “So much of this industry is short-term minded, and we don’t think about the effects of what we build.”

That’s why when 19J opens in December, it will include a few dozen “micro-units” with rents of less than $1,000 — a rarity in Sacramento these days.

Also, five other units will be set aside specifically for REstart graduates, who will be hired as “resident property managers” and tasked with “activating” the building with group yoga classes, movie nights and other activities for tenants.

Mohanna’s goal is to have 50 graduates live and work at 19J over the next 10 years, with each staying a year before moving on to a better job in the real estate industry. She also is pushing other developers to adopt the model, in order to help get even more people into stable housing.

It’s a lofty goal, but Mohanna has the idealism and energy of a millennial.

She has been a behind-the-scenes supporter of REstart since it started. All of the women who participated in the program were handpicked by Women’s Empowerment, where Mohanna is on the board and where she has volunteered, helping homeless women, since she was a kid.

She calls it “social impact development,” and Sacramento needs more of it. At least two of the eight women who graduated on Wednesday already have jobs.

REstart can’t help everyone. The program isn’t for people who, for example, have been homeless for a decade, living along the American River Parkway like so many who are staying at the controversial triage shelter in North Sacramento. But it can make a difference.

California is a state desperate for solutions. This is one that should give everyone hope.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith

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