By Joshua Alvarez | Special to the Almanac
More than 100 people gathered at the Menlo Park campus of the Department of Veterans Affairs on a damp Monday afternoon to celebrate the groundbreaking for a new apartment complex aimed at providing affordable housing for veterans.
"A beautiful building with an important mission has transitioned from dream, which at times over the last three years has seemed nearly impossible and elusive, to reality," said Christopher Neale, vice president of Core Affordable Housing, which will build the complex. "In approximately one year this building will end homelessness for 59 veterans."
Located at 605 Willow Road, the project is funded by a variety of public donors, including the city of Menlo Park and San Mateo County. Willow Housing L.P., part of The Core Companies, leased the approximately two acres of land, valued at $12 million, for free from the VA, and plans to complete construction in December 2015.
The complex will be built in a Spanish style and will span 40,000-square feet, containing 60 units, including 54 studio and five one-bedroom units, as well as a two-bedroom manager's unit that will not be part of the low-income program. The complex will help Menlo Park meet its state-mandated obligation to plan for more affordable housing in the city.
Rent maximums will range from $574 to $792 per month, depending on income, with a $35,520 annual income for a family of two as the current maximum to qualify. The city financing is coming from its below market rate (BMR) fund so low-income Menlo Park residents or workers will be given first priority for 11 units. Qualifying veterans who live or work in Menlo Park will be given highest priority.
"This day has been a long, long time coming," said Lisa Freeman, director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, or which the Menlo Park campus is a part. "It directly supports our mission of not only improving veterans' health, but also their well being. On any given night, there are almost 900 homeless veterans in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. To have affordable housing on this campus is a tremendous step in the right direction."
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, whom Mr. Neale praised for helping resolve conflicts between state regulations and federal requirements that put the project at risk, spoke to the gathering. "This is not only a groundbreaking, we are breaking ground. This is a great act of love and commitment by our community."
Darci Palmer, the project manager at Core, whose father is a Vietnam veteran, fought back tears during her speech: "Dad, guess what, we started construction."
Warren Slocum of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors also attended. The ceremony held special significance for Mr. Slocum, who is also a Vietnam veteran. Exactly 50 years ago, on Feb. 9, 1965, the first American combat troops landed in South Vietnam, he said. Mr. Slocum was deployed to South Vietnam in 1966 as an 18-year-old.
"One of the lessons I took away from that experience was the idea that you leave nobody behind," he said.
Now he said he hopes to build on the construction of the Willow development with the establishment of a Veterans Commission for San Mateo County. "We want to bring together veterans from across sectors and organizations and create a 20-person commission to better coordinate service delivery for veterans in San Mateo County," he told the Almanac.
Beau Laskey, director of capital at Silicon Valley Bank and a Navy SEAL veteran, capped the public remarks by thanking the community for their service. "I'm very proud to see the local community here and their commitment to serve those who have served others."
Among the audience members was Bobby Shaw, a veteran who was homeless for six years before he entered a VA program. "It changed my life. I was housed for three years until I was able to get all of my federal benefits. I now have my family back together," he said. Mr. Shaw said he believes the new complex will help homeless veterans get back on their feet. "We just need a lot more housing. There is not enough."