BY: MAYA DUNNE
Ms. Dunne is vice president, community outreach, St. Joseph Health System,
A Catholic System Works with Others to Provide Homes for Very Low-Income
St. Joseph Health System (SJHS), Orange, CA, has been committed since
the mid-1990s to acting as an advocate for the housing needs of low-income
people. In 1997, for example, SJHS became a founder, with Mercy Housing
and six other Catholic health care organizations, in creating the Strategic
Health Care Partnership, an investment pool designed to bring affordable
housing to the most vulnerable.
In 1999, SJHS supported Mercy Housing's construction of an 81-unit development
for very limited-income senior citizens in Orange County, CA. Two years
later, SJHS supported Mercy Housing's creation of a 23-unit development
in the county for homeless people with HIV/AIDS.
In the same year, SJHS and other local groups formed the Kennedy Commission,
a group devoted to improving housing in Orange County. Just last spring,
the commission persuaded the city council of Anaheim, CA, to vote unanimously
for an ordinance that would offer incentives to developers who set aside
portions of their housing projects for low-income renters.
The mission of St. Joseph Health System (SJHS), Orange, CA, is to "extend
the Catholic health care ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, by
continually improving the health and quality of life of people in the communities
we serve." A health care system with 14 hospitals in California and west
Texas, SJHS is strongly committed to acting as an advocate for the housing needs
of lower-income residents. Over the past six years, we have engaged hospital
leaders, employees, and community members in a struggle for affordable housing
in the communities we serve.
We began our work in 1996 by asking ourselves some difficult questions:
- Were the SJHS mission and vision dedicated only to providing health care
services for the poor and vulnerable, as well as the general population, or
did the mission and vision extend to efforts designed to improve quality of
- Why were parts of the community in poor health? Did this have something
to do with prevailing social and economic systems?
- Could SJHS extend its mission to address deep societal issues? How would
our mission compel us to address these issues?
The Healthy Communities Movement
In 1994 a group of hospital leaders, including members of the Sisters of St.
Joseph of Orange, SJHS's sponsoring congregation, became involved in a nationwide
group called the Healthy Cities and Communities Coalition. This organization
began to explore ways in which its members might improve the quality of life
in their communities. As a result of their participation in the coalition, SJHS's
leaders began a careful consideration of the system's influence in its communities
and the ways this influence might be used to effect social change.
SJHS members began to meet as a Healthy Communities roundtable to design programmatic
responses. In 1998 the roundtable group hosted a "Healthy Communities Summit"
in Orange. The meeting brought together health care executives, board members,
and community leaders. At the end of the two-day meeting, each hospital executive
present made a commitment to begin working to improve some local quality-of-life
situation—involving better nutrition, for example, or affordable housing,
or cleaner water, or improved education. The leaders of St. Joseph Hospital,
Orange, CA, and SJHS's corporate office decided to partner in an effort to increase
affordable housing in Orange County.
Affordable Housing Developments
In 1997, SJHS's leaders initiated conversations concerning affordable housing
with Mercy Housing, Denver, a national, faith-based, not-for-profit organization.
A year later, SJHS agreed to join Mercy Housing and six other Catholic health
care systems in creating the Strategic Health Care Partnership, an investment
pool designed to bring affordable housing to the most vulnerable (See Sr. Lillian
Murphy, RSM, "Allying
Health Care and Housing."). SJHS invested $5 million in the pool. The
commitment has recently been renewed for a second five-year term.
SJHS has three hospitals in Orange County. To better understand that community's
needs, the system's leaders conducted conversations with key local stakeholders
and collected data about the county. Although many Americans think of Orange
County as a wealthy enclave, a significant portion of the county's population
could be considered "working poor." Rent for a two-bedroom apartment
in the county is now nearly $1,400 a month and the apartment vacancy rate is
only 3 percent. As a result, an increasing number of the county's families are
Armed with data and a clear vision of the goal it wished to achieve, SJHS began
by identifying the Orange County cities most in need of housing for low-income
people. Anaheim was one of those selected. Home to Disneyland, Angels baseball,
and the Mighty Ducks hockey team, Anaheim is a rapidly growing city in need
of new low-income housing units.
In 1999, SJHS's leaders began to work with Mercy Housing to identify sites
for family housing. Mercy Housing was approved to construct Linbrook Court,
an 81-unit development for senior citizens with very limited income. As with
all affordable rentals today, financing was needed. This was provided by a variety
of sources, including banks, the city government, and SJHS. Two years later,
Mercy Housing secured another site and on it built Casa Alegre, a 23-unit development
for formerly homeless people with HIV/AIDS. Great joy accompanied the opening
of these units. SJHS's leaders were especially proud, because they knew that
the developments' residents would be healthier and would enjoy a higher quality
The Kennedy Commission
Meanwhile, in 1999, SJHS leaders were invited to meet with other Orange County
groups to discuss local housing needs. After a series of informal get-togethers,
the participants decided to form an advocacy collaborative, the Kennedy Commission,
named for a local human rights advocate. The commission comprises representatives
of not-for-profit health care providers, service providers, providers of care
for homeless people, community organizing groups, for-profit and not-for-profit
developers, local banks, and others. Its mission is to increase housing production
for Orange County residents who earn less than $10 an hour. SJHS has participated
in the commission's work by:
- Supporting developments such as Linbrook Court and Casa Alegre
- Supporting land-use reform and financing efforts to increase affordable
housing opportunities throughout the county
- Serving on the commission's board of directors and supporting fund-raising
On May 25, 2004, Anaheim's city council unanimously approved that municipality's
new Affordable Family Housing Ordinance. The ordinance, which was developed
by the Kennedy Commission and which the council approved unanimously, offers
incentives to developers who agree to set aside from 10 percent to 20 percent
of their new units for renters living at or below 50 percent of the area's median
*See the Kennedy Commission, Who
We Are; and the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing,
Acting as advocates for affordable-housing developments like Casa Alegre,
SJHS employees joined other Kennedy Commission members in attending city council
and housing commission meetings, testifying at public hearings, writing letters,
and meeting with city council members. Their involvement helped sway public
opinion and facilitate the success of these efforts.
The Kennedy Commission has become an established presence in Orange County.
The commission can be counted on as a voice for those who can't always participate
in daytime meetings or seemingly endless public hearings. Its voice is the biblical
call to enact justice and act justly. SJHS supports the commission as a long-term
force acting as an advocate for vulnerable and voiceless people.
We at SJHS have learned valuable lessons from our housing endeavors, including:
- Achieving success in building housing for lower-income people takes time,
patience, and persistence.
- Models such as Anaheim's Affordable Housing Ordinance can be developed to
- SJHS employees understand the issue of affordable housing-many face similar
hurdles or know people who do-and will mobilize around it if called to do
- People (of whatever income level) can be a project's best asset if they
are shown what the housing will look like and who will benefit from it.
Copyright © 2005 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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