Monday, July 13, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 19

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 17th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 29

Peoples' Self-Help Housing is concerned census numbers could affect its ability to provide services

By William D'Urso

John Fowler likes numbers. 

As a certified public accountant, they’re kind of his thing. Spreadsheets, tax credits, mortgage rates, all of it. 

But as the president and chief executive officer of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, he’s got different numbers on the brain: Next year’s census.

He’s concerned that housing needs, despite record low unemployment rates, are growing in California’s notoriously expensive housing market.

“We’re hoping the census will show the growing need, and we think it will,” he said. 

In his time at the affordable housing nonprofit, he has helped house scores of local low-income people. Peoples’ Self-Help Housing itself employs about 200 people, making it the largest affordable housing nonprofit on the Central Coast. If the census delivers the numbers Fowler expects it to, then he’ll have more money to fund projects.

But Fowler worries that the census numbers, if reported incorrectly, could hurt the nonprofit’s ability to build affordable housing and provide the services it considers essential for the residents who live there. 

The organization is 49 going on 50 and has a unique way of getting people into homes: The residents build the houses themselves. That particular program is for a single family.

Here’s how it works: Peoples’ Self-Help Housing buys the property and then finds a family who can qualify for a mortgage once the house is built. They help secure a construction loan and provide a supervisor on-site to help the project along. The soon-to-be owners swing the hammers themselves, working a required 40 hours a week on the house. Those hours can come entirely from the family or from friends or volunteers, but they have to hit that mark each week.

“They do it at night or on the weekend for a full year. It’s a big commitment. But at the end of it, they have the American dream,” Fowler said. “They have what they otherwise wouldn’t be able to have.”

Fowler said the nonprofit does about 30 of these housing projects each year with the residents putting in what he calls “sweat equity.” 

Peoples’ Self-Help also has a multi-family housing program. Fowler said that program houses about 5,000 people in the three counties they operate in: Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties. 

Fowler said they have three complexes in Santa Maria, and it’s not uncommon for a property to contain 40 units. The costs to live in one of those complexes varies, depending on the individual applicants. But a one-bedroom unit can run about $760, while a three-bedroom can cost about $1,400.

These big apartment complexes Fowler and his team finance and build can cost upward of $20 million. That’s where he gets into the numbers. The nonprofit uses a tax credit that it sells to banks so it can finance these projects. The banks are federally required to purchase them and can use the tax credits on their end-of-year filings over an 11-year period.

Fowler also explores what they can get from local municipalities in the form of waivers for construction permits.

“If we can pick up a couple million dollars from the local jurisdiction, that’s pretty good,” he said.

Fowler said Peoples’ Self-Help Housing is able to leverage their tax credits because of its long track record of success and the sheer number of banks that want to buy them. He said there’s a lot of competition for the credits, and that benefits the nonprofit.

But the nonprofit’s work doesn’t end once it signs people up and moves them in. Peoples’ Self-Help Housing hires social workers who have offices on-site, available to make appointments with residents.

“What issues are going on that as a result of not being fixed will cost someone their housing?” Fowler said. “You don’t just put a roof over people’s head then say, ‘Have a nice life.’”

Peoples’ Self-Help Housing also works with school districts to get after-school programs on-site at its housing complexes. In Santa Maria, the nonprofit has hired after-school staff to run one of the Santa Maria-Bonita School District’s After School Education and Safety programs.

With the upcoming census, Fowler sees that only more people will need housing, but he’s concerned that the numbers won’t show the whole story. 

“Wages can’t keep up with housing and rent,” he said.

He’s not worried about the tax credits his nonprofit sells to banks. Those aren’t going anywhere, he says. But if the state of California and the numerous municipalities in which the nonprofit operates don’t get the funding it needs, that could result in less help for the nonprofit’s projects.

The deputy CEO of Santa Barbara County, Dennis Bozanich, laid out the numbers.

“For every single person that is undercounted, that district loses $2,000 per person per year,” he said.

There was likely an undercount with the last census, Bozanich said, and he worries that it could be even worse this time. The census has, for the first time, been moved to an online survey, and he said that many low income people don’t have easy access to the internet, and a lot of seniors might not be included either.

And then there are immigrants. Bozanich said getting the word out to people who may be fearful of being deported is a challenge

“Our main focus is to find residents here in Santa Barbara County that people trust to communicate the importance of filling out the census,” he said. 

Staff Writer William D’Urso can be reached at

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