USC alumna oversees affordable housing project

Alumna Vanessa Luna first became interested in affordable housing after working in the Center for Economic Development at USC. She now serves as the housing director for Clifford Beers Housing. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Luna)

USC alumna Vanessa Luna is overseeing the development of the King 1101 Apartments, an affordable housing project for homeless families and veterans located in Exposition Park. Often referring to the development as her “baby,” Luna is excited about her first project at Clifford Beers Housing, a company that creates affordable homes, and its positive effect on the South Los Angeles community.

As the housing director of CBH, Luna has taken charge of the project’s planning, funding and construction. The apartments are set to open Jan. 18, 2019.

“[Our mission is] giving people stable housing and keeping that housing beautifully maintained with services providing people what they need to find jobs and be productive,” said Audrey Peterson, the assistant project manager at CBH.

Luna first became interested in providing affordable housing through her work at the Center for Economic Development at USC and her fellowship with Housing and Urban Development. After earning a master’s degree in planning from the Price School of Public Policy and working at the Skid Row Housing Trust, Luna transferred to CBH in 2013.

“[King 1101 Apartments] is the first development that I started from inception when I came over to Clifford Beers, so we’ve been working on it since 2014,” Luna said. “It took a long time to put together all of the financing for the project.”

According to Luna, King Apartments will have a total of 26 units with a mix of studio, one bedroom and three bedroom apartments. Special offices in the building house the case manager and service coordinators, which help to provide mental health services, individualized plans and additional information about job training, therapy and support groups. Luna said service coordinators will also occasionally host art and cooking events to engage tenants.

Claire Okeke, the communications manager at CBH, said one special feature of the apartments is a ground-floor space for a local business.

“We want to contribute to responsible community development and not displace local businesses that are being [kicked out because of] high rent,” Okeke said. “So we’re going to be renting that to a locally established historical business from South Los Angeles.”

The apartments also have certified green sustainable features, such as solar water heating, a green roof and space for electric vehicle charging, according to Okeke.

During the planning process, Luna said she faced an unexpected problem in 2016, right before she was supposed to close the project deal with an investor and begin construction.

“In 2016, the elections happened and the fact that [Donald] Trump was elected [president] wreaked havoc with our tax credit market,” Luna said. “Because he lowered the corporate tax rate, investors weren’t as excited about investing and getting the tax credits for our developments. We had a financing gap on that project … which was over $800,000.”

Okeke said that few directors would have been able to handle the challenges of funding that came with developing King Apartments.

“Vanessa has really helped transform the organization,” Okeke said. “[She’s] made a difference for 685 families that were formerly homeless. She’s a great leader.”

Luna’s goal with King Apartments is to provide permanent supportive housing to individuals who are at risk of retreating into the cycle of homelessness. Permanent supportive housing lacks a time limit, according to Luna, so residents can stay as long as they require the social services and stability offered by King Apartments.

“Our goal is to get them housed first and foremost,” Luna said. “After that, we hope to support them so that they can remain stably housed and be successful in addressing whatever other challenges they are facing.”