Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Veterans’ co-ops build homes fit for heroes

David J. Thompson
From Co-operative News
September 2, 2011

A Massachusetts co-operative is leading the way in solving the problem of homelessness among US veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many of these veterans have been left with physical and mental disabilities from their wartime service — and, with too few transitional facilities, many end up on the street.

This is a national crisis, with 275,000 US veterans now homeless — 8,000 in LA alone. A fifth of America’s homeless are veterans, trapped in a vicious Catch 22: if you cannot find a job you are likely to end up homeless, and if you are homeless it is unlikely you will get a job — a problem highlighted by the Prince William and Katherine the Duchess of Cambridge on a recent visit to LA, where they took part in a veterans’ job fair, “Hiring Our Heroes”.

The Massachusetts initiative puts co-operative housing communities, with veterans as members, at the heart of plans to give former soldiers a new start.

United Veterans of America in Massachusetts, also known as Soldier On, has pioneered the use of the limited equity co-op housing model and is involved in the creation of about 360 apartments in three veteran’s co-ops. The limited equity co-op model keeps the apartments permanently affordable.

The first co-op created by Soldier On is the Gordon H Mansfield Veterans Community in Pittsfield. Opened last spring, it provides 39 studio and one-bedroom apartments in a village style community, close to a Veterans Community Care Centre. It provides “permanent, sustainable, safe, affordable housing with support services that veterans will own and operate”. In addition, the co-op added an array of photovoltaic solar panels and other green features.

The venture needed $6.9 million dollars of financing from government agencies, the Federal Home Loan Bank, banks, foundations and non-profits. It was made affordable by the elimination of much of the permanent debt through a federal initiative called Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. The $2,500 dollars of equity required for each veteran to buy a share in the co-op came partly from the members and through grants and donations.

Last year, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Pittsfield Co-op a “Door Knocker” Award, one of 14 awarded nationally to honour models of state and local collaboration. “This national model allows veterans to feel the full responsibility that ownership entails while having the Soldier On service platform and it has proven a tremendous success,” said Jack Downing, CEO of Soldier On.

Massachusetts is the only state to offer local financial assistance to its veterans, for food, clothing, shelter, housing and medical care — but its co-op model is being looked at closely by other states.

Two similar projects are on the drawing board in California, awaiting financing. Veterans organisations have joined to sponsor legislation which would make limited equity housing co-operatives eligible for the $1.3 billion of veterans housing funding available in California. The bill is backed by the Twin Pines Co-operative Foundation and this author is providing pro-bono technical assistance.

Since the end of the First World War, more than 40 housing co-ops have been built for returning veterans. Together these have created more than 13,000 housing units in more than 15 states. They have been built to meet a wide range of needs such as student housing co-ops for veterans returning to school, to the more popular apartment type buildings with numerous community features.

The idea, then as now, is that after wartime service there is a social and psychological value that veterans derive from living in the same community. But with so many vets coming home with physical or mental needs, and high unemployment, demand has outstripped supply. There is now a national push to end homelessness for vets in five years.

To achieve that goal, permanent Veterans Villages need to be created throughout the US. Strong communities — such as co-operative housing with on-site or nearby support services — give veterans the chance to rebuild their lives.

For many veterans, this new phase of housing co-ops is a journey that can take them from homelessness to home ownership and from soldier back to citizen.

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