A Model Partnership

8 min read

USA Properties teams with LifeSTEPS

“Our mantra is: We don’t build housing;
we build communities.”
—Geoffrey C. Brown, President and CEO, USA Properties Fund, Inc.

“We want our people to thrive where they’re
at in this stage of life. Our communities should become a secondary family.”
—Beth Southorn, Executive Director, LifeSTEPS

If these two statements sound similar, there is a reason: They are the heartfelt declarations of the two dynamic leaders whose respective organizations have formed an effective and empowering partnership to meet the needs of a vulnerable group of California seniors.

“We both believe in the same thing,” Geoff Brown says simply. Since its founding by Brown’s father in Santa Monica in 1981, USA Properties has built more than 80 market-rate and affordable communities throughout California and Nevada. Geoff joined in 1989, with a background in commercial credit and construction loans at Lloyd’s Bank. That year, USA syndicated its first tax credit family community in Desert Hot Springs, California. Since then, the company has grown from seven employees to more than 400.

“We strive to create a vibrant environment for each of our communities so that our residents are comfortable living here. We do this through clubs, spas, fitness rooms, activities and transportation.” The business model still incorporates significant use of federal, state and local tax credits and public bonds.

For its affordable family and senior housing, USA has teamed for 20 years with LifeSTEPS, a Sacramento-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide effective educational and supportive social services to the residents of affordable housing communities. The capitalized part of the name stands for “Skills Training and Educational Programs.”

LifeSTEPS was founded in 1996 by attorney and therapist Craig Gillett and real estate veteran Kenneth Robertson, who were convinced that access to affordable housing was only part of the solution. In keeping with their philosophy, the organization aims to do more than merely help low-income and senior residents maintain their lives; it wants to change the lives of its clients through a combination of case management, emergency assistance and education, which, the website states, “has blended together to provide a growing number of affordable housing residents hope for the future.” Currently, it serves more than 23,000 homes throughout California.

USA and LifeSTEPS have partnered on a number of fronts to improve the lives of their residents of all ages, including youth after-school and sports programs. They have jointly created the J.B. Brown Fund, named for Geoff’s father, to provide scholarships and emergency assistance to families and seniors faced with financial hardship from an extraordinary expense.

If there is one phrase that sums up LifeSTEPS’ approach, it is “targeted help.” What this means in practice is that individual help is available in emergency situations and when residents need to make critical decisions, but at no time is autonomy taken away.

“You’re only intervening in times of crisis, so the individual remains in control,” Beth Southorn explains. “I’m not interested in creating more dependency. I believe in the human spirit too much. What we are trying to do is connect the proper resources with the correct target, by determining: ‘What is it you actually need in a given situation?’ Is it a nurse, a counselor, a pastor, someone to help you with your grief? By helping people with problem solving, you’re actually giving them more personal agency.”

Says Brown, “Beth is very caring about helping people. But she’s passionate that at a certain point they have to stand up for themselves, so I think our philosophies are very compatible.”

Southorn concedes, “This is the first job where I feel I’ve actually had a real impact.”

The critical element of the LifeSTEPS safety net is a corps of dedicated, well-trained and experienced on-site social workers. According to Southorn, “They can help with judgment calls and help residents obtain all the services they qualify for. When you have a major decision to make, it helps to have a human being in the room. You don’t feel so alone when you have social workers available who can think their way through a problem and have the resources to do it.”

Sometimes, Southorn says, the solution can be as simple as “fixing a flat tire rather than having someone lose a job because he can’t get there.”

She is justly proud of the fact that LifeSTEPS has always managed to find the resources to help in every situation. If a resident needs money in an emergency, for example, he or she is then enrolled in mandatory “financial literacy education” and skills are measured before and after the class, along with the ultimate impact of the intervention. Thus far, the Client Emergency Assistant program has made it possible for 87% of recipients to maintain stable housing.

“We have a database that measures over 400 outcomes,”says Southorn.

USA pays for LifeSTEPS services out of its own budget, but as Southorn points out, “I fundraise all year long.” LifeSTEPS lists 17 foundations and six developer/management companies (including USA) as donors, as well as 11 major in-kind contributors. Both Southorn and Brown are zealous and dedicated advocates for support of low-income families and seniors, and neither has any illusions regarding the scope of the problem.

“From a macro perspective, one of the biggest challenges we see is the need for more senior affordable housing,” says Brown. Of the 12,000 units of affordable housing for families and seniors in the USA portfolio, occupancy rates are more than 98%.

One of the major components of the challenge is the demographic reality that there are more people coming into the senior sector, and many of them need assistance they cannot afford. “In our elderly communities, the average age is gradually creeping up,” Brown continues. “Aging in place can involve a lot of stress as residents become frail over a period of time and can’t afford to move into assisted living, where their rent can quadruple.”

“Over the past 15 years, the average age of our senior clients has gone from 60 to 78,” adds Southorn. “This represents a crisis in aging in place and in California, there are no cheap answers. Independent living communities are having to become assisted living facilities. What will happen to those individuals if they don’t have the resources? What we end up with is premature placement in skilled nursing facilities that cost [the government] much more. Congress has to say, ‘We have to do something different here.’

“If you don’t keep people there [in affordable independent living communities], you’re not going to have the money to take care of them.”

“We spend a lot of time on the regulatory end and the legislative end,” notes Brown, who serves on the Board of Directors for the California Council for Affordable Housing and California Housing Consortium, of which he was Chairman for 2012 and 2013. “And we’re trying to come up with a model that we can go to the authorities with, showing that our plan is going to cost less than any alternative.” In practice, this will mean being able to offer more services to people in affordable senior independent living, even though Section 42 regulations mandate that everything above rent has to be offered as optional add-ons. “For the government, it’s a big bang for the buck.”

“I have the working poor who’ve done everything right but don’t have the resources to fully take care of themselves,” says Southorn. “How do we serve the seniors who don’t qualify for the funds they need?”

“California and other states have to be more creative in using tax credits and tax-exempt bond deals,” Brown suggests, noting that when he began, federal tax credits were going for about 50 cents a credit. “Now they’re selling for over a dollar.”

“We need to have the states take care of social service providers. And we need help to subsidize them so that it doesn’t step over Section 42. Some other states are way more on top of this than California. We need to make this a priority of the state.”

There is a widely held belief among affordable housing providers that California governor Jerry Brown does not consider it a priority. “All he really cares about is environmental issues and high-speed rail,” observed one longtime industry insider.

“I think the government is scared of the scope of the problem,” Southorn states. “Officials don’t want to make major decisions without evidence, and I get that. But if we offer our services in affordable communities, we have great economies of scale, and we can, and do, measure the results.”

One of the impediments, Southorn feels, is that legislators and government decision makers tend to think in terms of numbers and statistics rather than what she calls “real stories.” “It’s scary getting older and not being able to take care of yourself. What happens to all of the people – mostly women – who don’t have an individual support network? These people have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Don’t take their power or community away.”

It is models like the USA Properties-LifeSTEPS partnership that may have the best chance of preventing that from happening. But it is clear that additional resources must be forthcoming for the response to meet the scale of the growing challenge.