There Must be a Pony

Part 1 

weekend I had the opportunity to introduce to the public a family that had
worked very hard to gain equity in a property they were about to purchase—a
Habitat for Humanity home in Fullerton. In presenting the keys for the home to
this Mexican-American family of five, I was struck by the irony of the
situation; while something like one in ten of their peer group was either
behind in mortgage payments, or facing foreclosure outright, this clan was
about to enter the precious heart of the American dream—a home of their own.

But the
descriptor “their own” bears some scrutiny. Many, many people were involved in
bringing this particular dream to reality. The Vasquez family, or course, spent
substantial hours on site, where they learned to measure and cut, drive nails,
finish dry wall, and whatever else may have come across their path as they
literally labored to make their dream come true. I was there because my firm,
over the last decade, has staged golf tournaments to raise funds for Habitat. A
substantial portion went into the funding of these homes.

colleague, William Hezmalhalch, prepared the plans for the houses pro bono; all the engineering, from civil
to structural, was accomplished in a similar manner. Countless other volunteers
poured love and labor into this enterprise, all of them believing in the
ultimate vision of helping a struggling family achieve a home of their own.

Too bad
the Habitat phenomenon can’t be scaled up dramatically. Each iteration of a
family obtaining a place to call home is a wonderful accomplishment, but in the
overall picture of housing, it’s such a tiny fragment. We all wish the program
could be scaled up dramatically, but that would involve more than just a village—it would tiptoe to the threshold
of the “social contract,” and probably barge in the front door.

Like it
or not, we are all involved in housing those less able to accomplish this
significant milestone on their own. Some cases are obvious to see. The fully
civic supported SROs on Skid Row, for example. Everyone can agree on this need
and be at peace with a portion of their tax dollars going to make it possible.
Beyond question, the true “down-and-outers” need a hand to ease their

But as we
climb the “ability” ladder, the choices grow progressively more difficult to
make. I’m already participating in providing at least some kind of shelter for the most
egregiously down and out, but at what income level does [the need for]
assistance become murkier? Should we aid folks earning 120% of AMI?  150%?  180%? There are colleagues in my office, college

earning below 180% AMI. My instinctive reaction to them is [to recall] what I
experienced:  “Work long enough and
control your lifestyle so that you can save for a down payment on a modest
property.” Or, (and there’s no easy way to say this) get help from a
parent—either while living, or (less pleasantly) through an estate.

It’s a
sticky wicket. While the homes that Habitat orchestrates for deeply fortunate
owners attack one tiny aspect of the problem, and do it wonderfully, and with
integrity, it is clear that multifamily projects will be required to house the
vast backlog of working people who need shelter. In this place, at this time,
with these resources, how in heaven’s name are we going to do it?

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects)