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Developer considers housing the foundation of healthy communities

By Mary Stamp

Chris Venne’s focus on funding Community Frameworks’ housing projects stems from his belief that housing is a foundation for healthy lives and communities.

Access to affordable housing helps determine the success of individuals and families.  So the nonprofit housing developer based in Spokane and Bremerton helps low- and moderate-income people find affordable rental or owner-occupied housing in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana.

Chris Venne
Chris Venne

“Everyone needs a place to call home,” he said.

“We develop everything from homeless and domestic-violence shelters to housing for farm workers, seniors, families and disabled people, said Chris, who graduated from a Jesuit high school in Portland before coming to Gonzaga University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1970.

“Such populations need more than housing.  They need a package of supportive services to help them move into the mainstream,” he explained. 

One of the first projects he helped secure funds for was Hope House with 34 emergency shelter beds and 25 transitional apartments for homeless women and children, completed in 2004 with Volunteers of America and the Coalition for Women on the Street.

Chris recently found funding for Spokane Baptist Homes to build 50 low-income, independent-living subsidized senior housing units on the campus of Lilac Plaza Retirement Community. 

Community Frameworks is also working on a 38-unit rental-assisted senior housing project with Rockwood Retirement Communities in Spokane Valley.

In Moses Lake, plans are underway for 23 units of independent-living apartments for domestic-violence victims and for adults with mental illness or developmental disabilities, plus 12 units for people with other disabilities.

With Blue Mountain Action Council in Walla Walla, they are developing a 25-unit “housing-first” project of permanent supportive housing for homeless families—taking them off the streets and creating support services so mental-health or alcohol-recovery treatment is more likely to succeed, Chris said.

In Roberts, Idaho, they are helping to build 24 units of farm-worker housing for seasonal workers to live year-round in this potato-growing community.

Community Frameworks, which now occupies much of the Lindaman Nonprofit Center at 315 W. Mission, partners with 42 organizations such as:

• The Salvation Army on 30 units of transitional housing and a 90-bed shelter;

• Cheney Care Center on 30 units of independent living, mixed-income housing for elderly people;

• Holman Gardens in Spokane Valley to renovate its 96-unit senior housing, and

• Richard Allen Apartments in East Central Spokane to renovate 56 units.

While most of its work is with other nonprofits, Community Frameworks recently decided to own and operate a 24-unit affordable apartment house in Spokane Valley.

They also offer HomeStarts, a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Self Help Opportunities Project (SHOP), with owners investing sweat-equity, like Habitat for Humanity, with no down payment and affordable payments.

Homeowners meet neighbors and create neighborhoods as they build, Chris said. To help people stay in the homes, they also offer homebuyer education on managing finances.

Community Frameworks has used $20 million in HUD money over 10 years to build hundreds of houses, said Chris, describing the staff as “mission driven.”

From 2005 to 2009, it added more than 1,000 rental units and 300 single-family homes.

“It’s hard to keep up with the need,” he said. “I hear of people who can’t afford to be in their house and put food on the table.  Much remains to be done.”

Despite nation-wide efforts in the last five years to encourage communities to develop 10-year plans to end homelessness, the problem continues, he said.

The information from the Homeless Coalition’s annual statewide Point-in-Time Count of homeless people each January helps measure homelessness.

“We see increased numbers, but don’t know if it’s real increases or better counting,” said Chris, citing inspiration by the late Robert Theobald, a consultant and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church who promotes resilience for communities, people and ecological systems.

Chris joined the Robert in an intentional community in Arizona in the 1970s.  He said Robert helped found the Northwest Regional Foundation after Expo 1974.  Chris moved back to Spokane for the World’s Fair and to start a film and video business to record environmental conferences.  In 1992, he started a business promoting high-tech, energy-efficient manufactured housing, incorporating technology from Sweden.

After serving 15 years on the board for the Northwest Regional Foundation—which became Northwest Housing Facilitators and is now Community Frameworks—he was hired as a housing developer.  Now he is the development finance manager.

Chris works with nonprofit groups that Community Frameworks brings together to advise on decisions and fund raising for affordable housing.

Some want to build single-family houses and have difficulty buying land or finding contractors.

“Projects in rural communities, such as Omak, Moses Lake, Cheney, Washtucna and Newport, are an important part of our work.  Rural problems are as big as urban ones, but are often hidden and hard to address,” Chris said.

Because funders often overlook rural areas, there are fewer bids on materials and outside contractors may cost more, he said, and rural projects require sensitivity.

“We need to be with people where they are and take them to the next step,” he said.  “It’s hard to develop affordable housing in rural communities because we might fill 12 units, but not 50, and it costs more per unit to build fewer,” he said. 

Chris does marketing, financing, contacting architects and designers, managing the development process, and dealing with community and state regulatory issues.  Projects take thousands of hours over years to develop.

Community Frameworks begins with a development concept to define the need, market, funding sources and community acceptance.

Once there is a concept—such as HUD affordable senior housing—there is a feasibility study that asks:  Is land available?  What is the cost?  Will the owner sell it?  Is it zoned right?

Then the planner raises money from three to five sources.

“We expect the unexpected.  It takes a long time to raise public money, up to 18 months,” said Chris, who continually keeps his eye open for community, state and federal funding.

“With nonprofits, we aim for a double bottom line:  1) meeting the mission to provide housing for people who lack access, and 2) assuring the financing will work for construction and long-term viability,” he said.  “Some move 15 to 20 steps down the road of 100 steps and find out the project won’t work.  We need funds for these false starts.”

Chris insists that the projects work financially.

About 75 percent of the work is done before “the shovel hits the ground,” with the concept, feasibility study and negotiations to assure the deal is done and finances are in place before construction and operations begin.

For information, call 484-6733 ext. 210 or email chrisv@communityframeworks.org.

 

Copyright © December 2009 - The Fig Tree