Summer 2006 Newsletter

Century Housing Works with NSBN to Bring Childcare to Affordable Housing Developments

Robert NorrisIt is no secret that the Los Angeles area needs more affordable housing. But housing that is merely affordable and fails to provide the social services that low-income families desperately need does little to improve neighborhoods. Dedicated to building affordable and livable communities, Century Housing is working with NSBN to include childcare and pre-K facilities in housing developments that serve working parents and their young children. As Century Housing's Executive Vice President Robert Norris explains in this interview, NSBN's ability to plan for multiple uses in one development is helping Century build and program exactly the kind of early childhood friendly neighborhoods needed to provide its residents with 'more than shelter.'

The slogan "More Than Shelter" suggests that the interests of Century Housing lie in more than just building housing units. What types of childcare and family services complement the housing in which Century invests?

In the broad view, we know that transforming low-income communities into self-sufficiency involves more than just financial subsidies. For example, you have to allow the current residents access to better employment, which usually requires them to go through education or job training. That's why we have a program to help men and women enter into the construction trades.

And affordable childcare is beyond the realm of consideration for most residents of low-income housing. That is why Century has helped create child development centers that offer services to low-income families, near transportation corridors, or on-site in affordable housing developments in some cases. "More Than Shelter" is more than just a roof and four walls, as we like to say.

Century has entered into an memorandum of understanding with NSBN to both work on a pre-K facility on Imperial Highway, as well as other opportunities in South Los Angeles. What benefits does this collaborative partnership offer?

We have a certain expertise in developing the facilities, and in all the facilities that we've developed we've looked for qualified, experienced service providers. But we're smart enough to know our limits. We would like to take advantage of the knowledge and qualifications of NSBN in developing a facility that would provide top-quality childcare services to the area.

How difficult is it to collaborate on bringing public agencies and communities together around mixed-use developments that have housing, pre-K, jobs, and open space?

You have to try to hold some things constant while dealing with certain variables, such as community acceptance, the entitlement process, funding, timing, and qualifications of the service provider. Keeping all of those things together is crucial, especially in an effort to serve a low-income community. Usually that constituency doesn't have the political infrastructure or other community organizations that could underwrite the pre-development efforts or encourage a service provider to come in and support them while they're developing the project.

Why go through all of this? What's the payoff of building these neighborhood centers of mixed-use developments?

If I were to do what we call a "double bottom line" analysis there is a financial cost, but there is also a secondary impact on the individuals who will be using the service. For example, if single parents could put their children into affordable child care then they may be able to undergo training or take a job that would allow them to begin to support themselves. Meanwhile the young children in child care would get the early education and experience that would put them in a better position to succeed in school and perhaps enter and complete their secondary education. It starts to create multiplier effects.

Studies of Head Start and other programs have shown that early childhood activities have a significant impact on ultimate success in life. And, altruistically, society is a much better place if you don't create second and third generations of poverty.

Let's focus in on the Imperial and Central joint use project that NSBN and Century are working on. What does Century hope to accomplish there?

We have the opportunity to create over 100 childcare slots. We were looking initially at maybe 70 or 80, but as we've gone through the site consolidation process and especially with the involvement of NSBN and the support of Supervisor Yvonne Burke, we're now looking at a much more highly utilized site that will offer pre-K and/or a primary center.

That location allows us to establish a more comprehensive childcare center. It has required Century to play the role of organizing entity that would do the real estate, due diligence, remediation and site preparation. We would be the ultimate destination and custodian of the land for the transaction, which allows the public agency to be the conduit for receiving the property from CalTrans and then putting it into ownership where it can be developed. The partnership with NSBN allows us to attract a service provider that will improve the operation of the site.

What is the promise of such working relationships for other sites with which Century Housing is involved?

People always ask, "What have you done and where have you done it?" They always want to see what you have done and when they see that you have overcome a challenge and you've put a quality operation into place, then their willingness to support your endeavors in other areas increases.

We're actively considering two or three other projects, and they're constrained only by the availability of land and community acceptance for developing childcare at those particular locations, especially when you are talking about affordable childcare.

We also have to consider the challenges involved with those sites. Usually the sites that we are being offered are in tougher-to-develop areas because the high-value sites have already been developed, so we are going to have to look at sites that no one wanted on the first pass. And we are going to have to assemble parcels big enough to accommodate an adequate facility.

School districts are spending more than $18 billion that has been approved by voters locally for school facilities and modernization, plus $34 billion in state school bonds, and another $10 billion that will be on the ballot in November. How do your efforts to develop quality mixed-use neighborhoods that offer child care, affordable housing and access to health care and schools compete with or complement the school districts' agendas?

It is the challenge of all the new concepts, which people have to then integrate into their existing daily workload. What is often perceived as "slow" for a lot of people looking in from the outside is that process of integration where you have to get an organization like a school district to look at a new way of consolidating its operations. In all fairness, the school districts have evolved into their current form through a process where its community and stakeholders have agreed on operating the way that it is now.

We're saying you can do something better if you want to do child development and you want to bring housing in because schools, as currently configured, are taking up a lot of valuable land that could have secondary uses. I'm looking particularly at my experience with the City Heights project down in San Diego, where the city and private enterprise and the bureaucracies of a school district and parks and recreation department collaborated on one area to make it a model for an integrated, living, business, school, recreation use.

What would encourage metropolitan L.A. to follow the model of San Diego's City Heights? How do you replicate good development models?

We would need three projects of that type, only because L.A. is such a large area you have to bring one in the Valley, one in the city, and one in South Central as a minimum. It could even require as many as six sites to hit the compass points because neighborhoods tend to view themselves as separate and distinct, but once they see that it can work in each of those different places, this model can gain traction and become part of our development process.

What is on Century's plate for the next year or two, and how does your agenda relate to children, families, and their neighborhoods?

We have been involved in this site for almost four years because it has taken that long to move through the process. But now, especially with NSBN coming on board, it looks like our time to action will probably be about 12 to 14 months after we get the final transfer and approval from the county.

We're going to propose to put up an immediate facility for at least 100 kids within the next three months, and then we would like to engage the community to look at the final facility, try to integrate as many partners and address as many child development needs of the community as possible in that process and then bring forward a great facility. I say this because usually in low-income communities there is a 40- to 60-year cycle where you put something up and then the public is going to expect you not to need anything again for about 50 or 60 years. We're going to have to put something up that is good and can last. It will be worth it, it is just going to take time.