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Celebrating Success: The Unity Council and the Bay's Future Fund

Cindy Wu and Max Lelu

Last month, The Unity Council became the proud owner of 1921 and 2022 36th Avenue—homes to 25 families who were at risk of being displaced from their rapidly gentrifying Fruitvale neighborhood. With financing from the City of Oakland and the LISC-managed Bay’s Future Fund (the investment arm of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future), the acquisition will protect these homes from becoming market rate apartments.  We are thrilled that this project secures safe, quality housing for these families and shows how partners can innovate together as they respond to the housing crisis.

The Unity Council deal guarantees that all of the apartments in the two buildings will remain affordable to families making below 80% of the area median income (AMI) —with the majority affordable for families making below 50% of AMI — for at least the next 55 years. In addition, every existing tenant will remain in place— no one will be evicted or displaced. The organization also plans to rehabilitate the properties as well as provide existing tenants immediate access to The Unity Council’s emergency COVID -19 services, such as meal distribution to families, or technical assistance for those who own small businesses.

What makes the deal truly innovative is this: though The Unity Council has been a crucial service provider in the Fruitvale community for over 40 years—offering a Head Start Program, a drop-in Senior Center, youth programs, a farmer’s market, employment services, free tax guidance, and the construction and management of new affordable housing, among other things—the 1921 and 2022 36th Avenue acquisitions represent the organization’s first foray into acquiring and rehabilitating existing buildings. Though this was unchartered territory for them, when leadership at The Unity Council learned that these buildings were for sale and might convert to market rate, given their long history in the Fruitvale, they decided they had to act fast. And we made sure they could.

The Unity Council partnered with Bay Area LISC to get a loan from The Bay’s Future Fund (BFF) for acquisition of the buildings. The BFF provided a loan with competitive and flexible terms that met the challenging needs for acquiring a property still occupied by tenants.

Aubra Levine, Director of Real Estate Development at The Unity Council told us that the flexible terms were a lifeline. “When we communicated to LISC that certain BFF underwriting terms were challenging, not only for our project, but potentially for all occupied acquisition and rehabilitation projects – they worked with us to make adjustments,” said Levine. “By doing things like allowing a grace period for income certification, confirming that over-income tenants could remain in their homes, allowing us time to complete a seismic retrofit post construction, and enabling us to leverage more debt to make the project work, they helped save 25 families from losing the place they call home.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is worsening an already untenable reality.  Sheltering-in-place creates unimaginable challenges for our unhoused neighbors, while others who were already rent-burdened are now losing their jobs.  Housing is the first step toward building a healthy life and everyone, regardless of race, income, language, or immigration status, should have the opportunity to have that safe foundation.

So, a bigger problem demands a bigger solution. LISC has always believed that our role is to boost the capacity of other organizations to preserve and build affordable housing in order to scale our response to the crisis. The Unity Council’s recent acquisition is an excellent example of what is possible.

We are excited to engage more organizations to preserve and protect affordable housing as part of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, and to keep searching for unique solutions to the housing crisis, not just in response to COVID-19, but as models for addressing the persistent inequities in our society.