Oct 20Celebrating 55 Years of Housing Justice with the Rural California Housing Corporation
Since its inception in 1967, the Rural California Housing Corporation (RCHC) dramatically expanded access to quality affordable housing for Californians living in rural counties in the northern part of our state. From equipping low-income families with the financing and know-how to build their own homes to developing service-enriched rental housing, RCHC has developed 3,200 single-family homes and more than 1,000 rental apartments. After the organization merged with Mercy Housing in 2000, RCHC has continued to maintain a board of directors and a presence in Northern California.
In celebration of more than twenty years of fostering healthy, diverse communities together, MHC caught up with former RCHC staff members Stan Keasling, Greg Sparks, and Stephan Daues to reflect on the organization’s remarkable history.
Building Sweat Equity: Self-Help Housing
RCHC was initially geared towards helping low-income Californians in rural areas finance, build, and own their homes. Today, more than 3,000 families own and reside in houses they built themselves with RCHC’s support.
“We’d buy raw rural land, often without any infrastructure constructed yet, and work with eight to twelve low-income households at a time, training them to build each other’s houses and create their own subdivision from the ground up,” said Stephan Daues, who began in affordable housing as an Assistant Project Manager in 1998 with RCHC, and was later the Regional Director of Real Estate Development for Mercy Housing California in Sacramento until transitioning to a consultant role in 2022. “The sweat equity model was the only path to homeownership for the families who worked with us.”
Self-Help Housing made the American Dream a reality for many families who had once believed it was unattainable. Working side by side with their future neighbors for 10 to 12 months to build their homes was grueling. As former self-help housing participant and RCHC board member Terrie Bueno recalled, “When I got the news about building my own house, I said to my friends and family, ‘I am a single mother with three children, one with a disability, with health and learning disabilities of my own. There is no way I can put in 40 hours a week of sweat equity to build my own house. I have no credit history and have never rented or had a credit card. No, I will never own my own house.’ But RCHC had the plans and the know-how, the people, and the application. I filled it out, and 20 years later, I can say that it worked. I have lived in my home since 2003.”
In the mid-1980s, having helped approximately 2,000 families become homeowners, RCHC set its sights on other affordable housing ventures. “We realized there were needs we weren’t yet addressing,” said Stan Keasling, former Executive Director of RCHC. “We wanted ways to help refugees who lived in substandard rental housing or people who wouldn’t qualify for a loan because of credit issues. It was clear we’d need to branch out and start developing rental housing as well.”
Seeing the need, RCHC began to finance and develop affordable multifamily rental communities, partner with local governments to secure safe drinking water in local areas, and expand into urban areas of Northern California. When the Strawberry Manor area of Sacramento was flooded, 20 homes were abandoned and then foreclosed on by the California Housing Finance Agency. RCHC acquired the houses, then trained low-income families to repair the damages as a group, installing new siding, rewiring the electricity, and completing painting, flooring, and other finish work. “We did one task on every house one right after the other, so families could share labor and build skills,” said Stan.
Seeding The Field
As RCHC developed a reputation for thoughtful rural development, its leaders took pains to share their expertise and access to funding with smaller, grassroots groups. “Many nascent community organizations knew exactly what kind of housing their community needed and had great ideas for developing it, but state and federal agencies couldn’t take the risk on funding them,” said Greg Sparks, former Deputy Director of RCHC and former Vice President of Mercy Housing California. RCHC would partner on the projects, leveraging its good name to find funders and acquire sites.
“Other developers might balk at the practice of helping other groups build capacity, add homes to their portfolio, and eventually create more competition for deals, but that wasn’t RCHC’s thinking,” Greg added. “We wanted as many organizations developing quality rural housing as possible.”
The RCHC staff was also responsible for initiating the internship program for diversity hosted by the California Coalition for Rural Housing just before merging with Mercy Housing. MHC has participated in the internship program for 24 years now and hired many former interns as permanent real estate development employees.
After partnering as co-developers on two Sacramento communities in the early 1990s, Quinn Cottages and Saint Francis Terrace, MHC and RCHC made the momentous decision to merge organizations in 2000.
“Merging these two organizations has meant the best of both worlds,” reflected Stephan, who still works to meet the housing needs in many of the communities where self-help subdivisions have thrived for 40-plus years. “We have expansive national and statewide resources in terms of capital and political relationships, and yet I get to work like a grassroots community developer. We take on hard, complex developments and do them well because we really are local and carry the scrappy RCHC rural experience with us.”
Since the 2000 merger, MHC has developed thousands of additional affordable homes in the Greater Sacramento area with the continual support and oversight of the locally-based RCHC board of directors.
“It’s a great thing to be able to provide someone with a home and cap their rent or house payment at 30% of their income,” said Stan. “It allows opportunities for families to put their kids through school or to start their own businesses. It’s not our mission to build mixed-income communities, but we often do create them, as residents are able to build stability and financial security, and then they often choose to stay in these communities that they love.”
MERCY HOUSING CALIFORNIA THANKS THE RCHC BOARD OF DIRECTORS, PAST AND PRESENT
2021 BOARD ROSTER
DOROTHY SMITH, CHAIR
SISTER MARIA CAMPOS, RSM
SISTER LIBBY FERNANDEZ, RSM
PAST RCHC BOARD MEMBERS
FRED LOHSE*, PAST CHAIR
WILLIAM POWERS*, PAST CHAIR
SISTER MICHELLE GORMAN, RSM
SISTER MAURA POWER, RSM
H. JOHN SHAW, III*
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