Community A Model for Affordable Housing and Hope in San Diego

by Vanessa McGrady | October 24, 2022

Albert Zuniga, 61, grew up just three miles from where he now lives in a bright, tidy studio in downtown San Diego, CA.

But the journey that brought him to his current home at Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa was a long, bumpy one, fraught with addiction and homelessness which also resulted in fall outs with family and friends. He’d finally found a sober living facility and a job as a janitor at a shopping mall, but that work ended when an injury left his legs numb. 

His leg function was saved by a risky emergency surgery, and he started to repair other aspects of his life, too. “I had a lot of trials and tribulations in my life. But I think I've become a stronger person because of that,” says Zuniga, adding that he’s grateful to all those who helped to make his new life possible.

An epiphany came to Zuniga when he saw the “Hope Lives Here” sign adorning the brand-new complex completed in early 2022. “I said a prayer right then and there and I said, ‘Jesus, if you can get me an apartment right there, that would just put the icing on the cake, and I appreciate everything you've done.’”

On a recent tour of his apartment, Zuniga proudly showed off his sweeping view of the city as a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies cooled in his compact, well-organized kitchen. His life has taken a radical turn for the better.

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An epiphany came to Zuniga when he saw the “Hope Lives Here” sign adorning the brand-new complex completed in early 2022.
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The power of partnership

According to May 2022 data surfaced by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness, there were approximately 8,500 people experiencing homelessness in San Diego County, marking a 10% rise from 2020. This increase in has made the need for Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa — the largest affordable housing tower in San Diego — even more critical. The affordable, subsidized building serves veterans, families, people with disabilities and single folks.

Citi, recognized by Affordable Housing Finance magazine’s 2021 survey of affordable housing lenders as the largest affordable housing lender for the 12th year in a row, provided $116 million in financing for this project as part of its Social Finance commitment to expanding access to basic services for 15 million low-income households globally. This work is a key component of Citi’s $1 trillion commitment to sustainable finance by 2030.  

Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa is part of a larger solution to homelessness brought forth by Father Joe’s Villages, a nonprofit organization that also rehabs motels and older buildings into permanent housing. Deacon Jim Vargas, a former corporate executive, runs Father Joe’s Villages as its president and CEO.

“When Citi came in and toured Father Joe’s Villages, they listened to our vision. Vision is what it's all about. Not only for Saint Teresa of Calcutta, but just in general as it relates to affordable housing,” says Vargas. He explained that creating lasting solutions to homelessness requires the funding to scale, which is why Citi’s partnership has been invaluable in terms of helping to realize the work they do.

From a development financing perspective, the Saint Teresa project demonstrates just how much a successful private-public partnership can achieve. “It involves the collaboration of numerous public and private entities, all with their own requirements and guidelines,” says Hao Li, vice president of Citi Community Capital, who worked on the initiative.

“And it brought together the affordable housing development expertise of Chelsea Investment Corporation with the supportive housing and services expertise of Father Joe’s Villages. Coordinating with so many parties is not always easy, but we made it happen because we all are driven by the mission of providing housing for those in need,” Li says.

Deacon Jim Vargas

Deacon Jim Vargas, President and CEO of Father Joe's Villages

Stable housing benefits residents and the community

Vargas himself grew up in public housing in New York’s South Bronx. But there are two elements that separate this 14-story LEED-certified housing tower with a gym, community rooms and outdoor courtyards with communal grills, from the housing projects of Vargas’ youth: Supportive services and targeted expertise.

“It's not just the four walls,” says Vargas. “It's the comprehensive services that we provide within the structure there.” More than a permanent shelter, they also provide wraparound services — education, childcare, addiction treatment, health care, mental health and other support — for residents.

Vargas points out that there’s a range of needs to be met with any housing program— it’s not just a question of affordability. “Typically, people who will reside there have some level of disability in terms of physical or behavioral-health challenges,” he says. “A lot of them have been chronically homeless. They've been on the streets for a long period of time. When that happens, you develop a whole host of other issues. And so, it becomes very challenging for those individuals to move off the streets into four walls.”

A man stands proudly in his home

Albert Zuniga, Saint Teresa of Calcutta resident

The 407 units provide housing for over 500 residents.  270 units are earmarked for supportive services and the rest are available to individuals and families unable to afford market-rate rentals, but who are otherwise stable. According to Rent Café, a typical rental in San Diego, for example, starts at about $2,900 per month for a 875 square foot apartment, well above the $1,700 national average.

Vargas makes it a point to meet with local community residents and businesses to help them understand housing plans and the positive impact they will have on the neighborhood. “There's a lot of animosity and a lot of misunderstanding,” he says. “My hope is that I'm able to sway them as to how this is good all around. I wouldn't say we're always 100% successful because there are those who we won't reach in that regard. But at the end of the day, as we do that, we're helping the community to become stronger.”

For the residents, who now have safe and consistent housing, Saint Teresa of Calcutta has been life changing. Now that he has his own space Zuniga has been able to concentrate on healing and staying sober. He’s back in touch with his family and occasionally hosts them in the community room down the hall. He is also working towards becoming an addiction counselor. 

Zuniga is now able to pass on advice — and hope — to others looking to find stable housing and change the direction of their life. “Don't give up and don't ever say you can't,” he says. “Because if you say you can't, that means you won't.”

A man sits at a table in front of a colorful mural
Vanessa McGrady

Vanessa McGrady is a writer and the author of ROCK NEEDS RIVER: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption (Little A). She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter, husband, their two dogs and an immortal fish.