Siumara Quintero, an 11-year-old living in the Shady Lane Mobile Home Park in Thermal, California, gave a touching depiction of how life has changed in her impoverished neighborhood since it was bought by the nonprofit Caritas Corporation, which provides housing to low- and very low-income families.
In hand-drawn pictures for a holiday greeting card contest sponsored by Caritas, Quntero drew before and after pictures of her home.
The before picture, in black and white, showed a plain, dilapidated home under gray skies with garbage bags strewn in front.
The after picture, in color, depicts a decorated house under a sunny sky, with a Christmas tree in the window, a snowman in the yard and a metal trash can for refuse.
“It was so interesting to see from a child’s perspective,” Tracy Bejotte, chief operating officer for Caritas, said of her group’s affect on the area.
To Randy Redwitz, chief executive officer, it was emblematic of what the company strives to bring to California’s growing housing crisis.
“We don’t just acquire property,” Redwitz said. “We build communities. It’s more than just housing, it’s community spirit and togetherness. We try to imprint that.”
In addition to the mobile homes, the parks include amenities such as clubhouses, laundry rooms, pools and fitness centers. The organization also sponsors scholarships and civic and social engagement projects for residents. There is even a Caritas television network with programming and information for clients.
Bejotte says in many instances, programs are tailored to specific communities, such as a rosary circle and a child safety program in Garden Grove. Or Zumba classes, neighborhood watches, reading programs.
“When people hear of Caritas, we want them to think not of just a place to live, but an environment,” she said.
Founded in 1996, Caritas Corporation has been providing affordable housing, primarily through the acquisition of mobile home lots statewide. Currently the organization has 24 properties, with more in process, providing housing to nearly 5,000 households.
Redwitz, who started out as a certified public accountant with the organization, moved into the CEO chair in 2001.
He said the position fulfilled two of his interests as a social servant and numbers nerd.
“I was fascinated by our mission and felt we were achieving good things,” he said. “I also found tax exemptions and bond financing interesting, and we got good at that. It was a double whammy for me.”
According to Redwitz, 85 to 90 percent of the residents and families in Caritas’ neighborhoods qualify as low- or very-low income. Housing and Urban Development defines low income as 80 percent of median income for an area, very low income is 50 percent or less. The low-income threshold for the state is $58,650 for a family of four and $36,650 or less for very low.
Redwitz said Caritas conforms to existing rent control measures or self-imposes them to keep rent hikes to no more than cost of living indexes.
The organization has three mobile-home communities in Orange County: Rancho Brea in Brea; and Bahia Village and Emerald Isle in Garden Grove.
Last year, Caritas partnered with a homeless services provider to buy its first apartment complex in Dana Point. In October, the city council approved up to $67.5 million in revenue bonds for Caritas, in part to acquire a 16-unit apartment complex and work with The Friendship Shelter to offer housing and services to chronically homeless residents.
So far, Redwitz said, “it’s worked out really beautifully. It’s wonderful to watch (homeless people) integrate back into the community and rehabilitate.”
Redwitz said the project is part of his group’s efforts to branch out by reaching out to impoverished communities that live in substandard conditions as well as the homeless.
In addition to the Dana Point effort, Caritas partnered with the Santa Clara Housing authority to take over a severely dilapidated mobile home community in Palo Alto.
The Buena Vista, which had opened in 1926 as a tourist camp within walking distance of Stanford University, had degraded to the point where residents were living in camper shells and storage sheds.
Since taking over a long-term lease, Redwitz said Caritas has begun clearing out drug dealers and rebuilding infrastructure with the help of local agencies.
“We feel very fortunate to have the chance to reclaim it,” Redwitz said of the community.
The Dana Point and Palo Alto efforts have also taught Caritas about the benefit of partnerships of groups with different specialties.
“It crystallized to us what we do best and where we may be lacking,” he said. “Joint venturing has become very valuable,” Redwitz said.
Caritas is in the process of opening a new community in Santa Monica and Redwitz said at any time his group is in the midst of three or four potential projects with the goal of opening two or three per year.
All of which, according to Bejotte, is with the goal to “unite people with a purpose to develop affordable communities that uplift and empower every resident.”