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Napa property owners turn investment properties into life-saving ventures
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Napa property owners turn investment properties into life-saving ventures

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NEWS volunteers women's march

NEWS volunteers Noemi and Carla at the 2019 Women's March Napa Valley in Napa.

Katherine was suddenly a single mom. She had just fled from her abusive husband in Mexico and returned to Napa, where she was born, bringing with her a 2-year-old daughter and newborn son.

Her grandmother lived here, but the elderly woman could only do so much, Katherine recalls.

The family of three quickly became homeless, living on the streets, sleeping in their car.

“We made the best of it. There were times we had food, times we didn’t,” she said.

During those lonely few months, Katherine (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as are the names of other NEWS clients in this story) met another man who later became her boyfriend. “I thought he was awesome at the time,” she said.

Together, the two got off the shelter waiting list and lived together. Things were good, until they weren’t.

Katherine, who herself had struggled with severe addiction before having her children, soon realized he was an addict. In the safety of four walls, he had also become an abuser, she said.

A friend had told Katherine about NEWS, a Napa-based non-profit dedicated to individuals who have survived domestic violence and sexual abuse, after her first marriage. She reached out to them now, and they promptly helped her file a restraining order.

“But, it is like people say, it’s just a piece of paper,” she said. Her abuser returned and was ultimately arrested when “he did what he did,” Katherine said, though she didn’t want to get into details.

Without dual-incomes and with two children to support, Katherine was left with nothing, which was part of why she had even stayed with him in the first place, she says, explaining how some people endure ongoing abuse because they rely on the relationship for financial well-being.

On the precipice of losing her house, Katherine again reached out to NEWS. The organization works directly with landlords on behalf of its clients, relying on an intensive case management protocol and making a financial guarantee to property owners to make sure rents are paid, leases respected and vulnerable individuals are able to secure stable housing.

“They helped me keep my place, and I was able to pick up and leave him. I don’t even know how to express how much they’ve helped. Just the fact that I’m not worried about some man coming in and doing whatever he wants,” Katherine said.

‘Angel’ landlords

NEWS believes the first step to recovery is housing, giving vulnerable people a way out of toxic and, oftentimes, dangerous situations, people just like Katherine. Though NEWS operates its own emergency shelter which serves as a shorter-term fix for individuals who may otherwise be on the brink of homelessness, the goal is to put families into a house of their own.

Given Napa’s 2% vacancy rate, according to recent Census Bureau statistics, and high cost of living, finding a place to live is a lofty challenge for anyone. It’s especially difficult for survivors of abuse – many of whom are dealing with their own mental health, addiction or trauma-related issues – who often lack full-time employment or education, face immigration challenges or must be the sole provider for the family.

“We’re always in competition with people who have enough income. Landlords know that they won’t have a hard time filling units,” said Michelle Sanchez, housing advocate at NEWS. “There’s always the judgment associated with our clients.”

But between 2018 and 2019, the NEWS housing program helped 68 adults and 125 children “secure or maintain safe and affordable housing,” largely due to a growing network of landlords willing to forego renting to a market tenant in favor of one of these more vulnerable individuals. It places most clients in residences managed by one of five property agencies, but advocates consistently engage private single-unit property owners as well.

In turn, individuals must be willing to be candid with their landlords – either themselves or through an advocate from NEWS – about the fact that they recently experienced a domestic violence-related incident, Housing Program manager Helen Rodriguez said.

“Without these landlords there would be no way this program would exist,” she said, calling them their “angels.”

Ryan Proctor, a property manager for Crown Realty Property Management, is one of these so-called angels. He’s participated in the program for nearly six years and estimates that he currently rents 50 properties to tenants that once came to him through NEWS.

Proctor says he’s had no serious incidents in all his years renting to NEWS referrals and, at this point, he seeks them out, especially when he has a one-bedroom or smaller two-bedroom available.

“We have quite a few owners that almost only deal with NEWS clients. These homeowners are involved in the community and it’s their way of giving back as well,” Proctor said.

According to Proctor, a key reason for the program’s efficacy is that NEWS signs on as the guarantor of the lease. Tenants typically receive subsidies through federal Section 8 vouchers or directly from NEWS, which means landlords assume no financial risk in renting to a tenant less experienced in the housing market and, perhaps, more likely to be late on a payment or miss it altogether.

“NEWS financially backs the tenant which is great for both the tenant – it takes a burden off them – and the owner of the property. Everyone on both sides has somebody in their corner and the rent is guaranteed, so it takes that off their plate,” he said.

Case management

Proctor also spoke of the intimate involvement of advocates like Rodriguez and Sanchez in the tenants’ lives as a major cause of success. “The entire time they’re living there, NEWS is going to the property, doing site checks, having the client come into the office and giving them the resources and tools they need to do well,” Proctor said. “It makes us as landlords very comfortable.”

There are usually around 10 participants in the intensive housing program at a given time. Clients sit with their case manager at NEWS monthly. The two evaluate a budget that determines how much financial assistance clients will receive and identify areas where they may need other support – refinancing a car loan, setting up a bank account, or finding a second part-time job, for example.

Approximately 95% of participants remain in the case management program for six months or less. At the start, they receive emergency financial support, homelessness prevention and services to address their immediate, short-term needs. As time goes on, they receive a monthly housing subsidy for independent living, moderate financial support and help in achieving stabilization and self-sufficiency.

Veterans of the program say this often motivates them to do more than they thought they could.

Valerie has been living on her own for a year, she’s gone back to school while working full-time and she’s learned how to manage her money better, she says.

“I’m really proud of myself … I’m learning day-by-day and this is a lesson for me that I can live by myself. It’s a lesson of life, that’s how I see it,” she said.

NEWS also handles all the bureaucratic red tape on the landlord’s side. In addition to backing the rent, case managers arrange housing inspections, shepherd paperwork and serve as middleman when needed between landlord and tenant to everyone’s satisfied. Occasionally, that means covering a payment shortage because the tenant can’t make rent or writing a check when the Section 8 voucher is late to arrive. It could also mean warning a landlord that a tenant is “spiraling,” as Rodriguez describes it, and letting them know they might observe odd behavior or late payment in the near future.

“Our alliance is with our clients, but at the same time we have a connection to the landlord and we need to uphold that. It can be hard to balance that sometimes,” Sanchez said.

Save for a few exceptions – Rodriguez can think of only two clients that have lost their housing – this at-times tenuous three-way relationship has survived and, arguably, thrived. Data from NEWS says 94% of the people it housed last year remained in their house for at least 12 months. Proctor says he’s even seen families go on to move into bigger places or purchase homes of their own.

Housing is key

For Necole Enloe, renting out her home to a survivor of domestic abuse is more than just a good deed, it’s personal. She endured an abusive childhood and an abusive marriage 30 years ago, and she recalls how difficult it was to get out of the relationship and back on her feet.

“There were so many fears and so many unknowns and fewer programs for support, just good friends. Housing made such a difference … it was one less thing racing through my mind every day,” she said. “Knowing that and having that experience, I wanted to reach out in some way and maybe help someone else in a similar position.”

The tenant is on a month-to-month lease, standard practice for NEWS clients, but Enloe says she and her current husband assured the team at NEWS they were committed for the long term so as not to “throw another hitch” into the life their renter is trying to build.

According to Sanchez, obtaining independent housing is absolutely critical to getting away from an abuser. “Lack of housing is the number one reason people stay. Even with two incomes, living here can be unaffordable, so a lot of people just stick it out because it’s scary to leave.”

Katherine, who now works 60-hour weeks and takes care of the grandmother who once cared for her, said if she hadn’t received the security provided from having her own house, she probably wouldn’t have left. “I know I wouldn’t be talking to you today because he was that bad. It was that bad to where he abused me not only physically but mentally, and I was in a state of mind where I would’ve taken my own life if he didn’t first because of how bad things were getting.”

Funding

In 2017, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services funded 33 non-profits across the state to implement a “housing-first” model that focuses on putting vulnerable individuals into “safe and stable” housing and then providing “ongoing supportive services” to help them move forward.

NEWS was one of the beneficiaries, receiving $675,000 to be used over the course of 24 months. The terms of the grant stipulated that the money could be put toward achieving literal housing and “self-sufficiency,” which, as Sanchez puts it, “could be almost everything under the sun.”

That allows for a certain degree of agility in figuring out how best to support these individuals once they have a roof over their heads. Such flexibility is unique, as other local, state or federal funding often comes with a more narrowly defined mandate.

“Life changes month-to-month, especially for our clients, so we’re able to sit down with them and make those determinations,” Sanchez said.

Flexibility also connotes decision-making power, according to Sanchez. NEWS doesn’t require clients to follow its recommendations, adhere to a certain budget or show proof of counseling, for example. Sometimes, she says, staff does wonder internally if a given client will turn things around, but they almost always do.

“Give someone a roof over her head and the security that she won’t be homeless. People are able to heal, be parents to their children, be grounded, start their lives over, even in one of the most expensive places to life without the fear and anxiety,” she said. “Everything falls into place.”

NEWS’ housing program will likely have to reckon with cuts this year. The initial grant from the governor’s office has timed out, so they’ll be receiving less from this stream on an annual basis. Other funding sources are available, but Sanchez says they’ll need to be even more thoughtful with how they spend their money due to the shrinking budget.

“It goes quick because rents are so expensive here,” she said.

Pricey rents alongside a dwindling number of vacant and affordable houses citywide make for a challenging picture. But angel landlords, NEWS advocates and successful clients alike remain convicted in their belief that this is a solution that works.

“Of all the agencies that I’ve dealt with in Napa, I’ve had the most pleasure dealing with NEWS because they do what they say they’re going to do. I’ve seen what they do for their clients. It’s amazing,” Proctor said.

Feel free to reach Carly Graf at @carlykgraf, cgraf@napanews.com or (713)-817-4692.

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City of Napa reporter

Carly Graf covers Napa city government and community issues. She received her master’s degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. She most recently worked for a news outlet in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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