John Mealey the founder and head of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition plans to retire at the end of march. The non-profit he founded has built nearly 5000 affordable houses and apartments in the last 30 years. (Mar. 3, 2016)
Rosalie Murphy, The Desert Sun 11:29 a.m. PST March 7, 2016
The Pueblo Nuevo apartments in Coachella is the first built by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition 30 years ago. Photo taken on Wednesday, March 2, 2016.
The year was 1982. A small group of advocacy types in the eastern Coachella Valley had already been talking for years about how the region’s farmworkers lived — in lean-tos under tamarisk trees, where they had no access to water, or in barracks provided by agriculture companies, as Sylvia Montenegro remembers. Many of the farmworkers’ children dropped out after elementary school, if they went to school at all.
Montenegro, who worked for the Coachella Valley Unified School District and later served as mayor of Coachella, recalled that a small legal aid group gave her and her fellow advocates an oak desk in a corner of their Coachella office. A few months later, the advocates landed a $10,000 grant from Aetna to start building housing for farmworkers.
That’s where John Mealey came in.
At the time, Mealey was a county employee. He’d worked in real estate and affordable housing, then rambled through Mexico and the Southwest before landing in the Coachella Valley. He agreed to join Montenegro’s team and oversee the construction of a 50-unit apartment complex for farmworkers — the first of its kind in Coachella, and maybe in the country.
Under Mealey’s leadership, that $10,000 grant and group of unpaid advocates grew into the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization that has built nearly 5,000 affordable houses and apartments valued at $550 million. The group is the county’s largest affordable housing developer and, industry leaders believe, one of the most successful groups of its kind in the nation.
Mealey is retiring from his role as executive director at the end of March, after 34 years at CVHC’s helm.
“There’s more good housing because of us, that’s one thing. There’s a lot more community programs because of us,” Mealey said. “There are houses like this that weren’t there before. There weren’t self-help houses and apartments for people who couldn’t afford to get places to live.”
Pueblo Nuevo, CVHC’s first project, was finished in 1986. The nonprofit renovated it last year, and it still houses 50 farmworker families. The pink stucco buildings surround a wide field, a playground and an office building with a childcare center. Across the parking lot is a community garden.
Initially, Mealey said, he planned to complete the Pueblo Nuevo project and then leave the housing business. He hadn’t taken a salary and, after his previous jobs in housing, had wanted to avoid the industry altogether. But after the project ended, he demurred, “I think I was attached to it too much.”
CVHC has built about 2,500 affordable apartments since Pueblo Nuevo, according to the nonprofit. Many house farmworkers, but others are home to families, people living with HIV/AIDS and military veterans. A recent project houses retired farmworkers.
CVHC also helped families finance nearly 2,000 single-family homes through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, which offers low-interest mortgage loans to families who actually build the homes themselves.
“It’s an amazing program. I don’t think I would have the ability or guts to put that much time in, but these are people who don’t really have any other chance,” Mealey said. “This is their opportunity to get a house, they want a place for their kids to live.”
Affordable housing leaders credit Mealey with building an efficient, effective nonprofit organization, that can find funding and stretch it a long way. They also say the group builds high-quality housing — and a lot of it.
“I don’t know anybody across the country who’s had a greater impact on his community than John has on the Coachella Valley,” said Hunter Johnson, another longtime affordable housing developer.
Johnson and others explained that, at the inception of CVHC, there was little political support for farmworker housing — or affordable housing in general. Today, affordable builders still struggle to find land and funding and face opposition from some neighborhoods and cities.
“Affordable housing, as much as it’s badly needed, is not welcome in every community,” said John Aguilar, who worked for CVHC for a decade and now serves as deputy director of the Riverside County Housing Authority. “(Mealey) has really been able to educate and help coach policymakers through the benefits of affordable housing. In some communities, that has been pretty transformational, at least for the families who live in those units.”
Leaders praised CVHC for providing programming to its residents, not just housing. Many of the group’s communities include childcare facilities, playgrounds, and even tutoring and field trips.
U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, also made a statement on the congressional record last week commending Mealey.
“I think (Mealey) created that mentality, that commitment, and he can be really proud of the high standards he has set for low-income housing,” said Leticia Delara. Delara worked with Mealey while serving in former county supervisor Roy Wilson’s office, and now runs the Regional Access Project, a Palm Desert-based nonprofit focused on health and juvenile intervention services. “It doesn’t have to be substandard in quality.”
Ethan Martinez, 5, plays outside the Salaises house in Coachella which was built under a Coachella Valley Housing Coalition program where home owners built their own house. (Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)
Finally, founding board member Montenegro credited Mealey with strict financial management and creativity in seeking out new funds.
“Sources of funding that we did not know would one day fund our housing have happened through John Mealey’s work,” Montenegro said. “Today’s financial situation for CVHC is incredible in terms of finance management.”
Mealey, after 34 years as CVHC’s executive director, said he plans to “catch up on 34 years of sleep” in retirement. Julie Bornstein, a former CVHC board member, California Assembly member and director of Cailfornia’s Department of Housing and Community Development, will assume leadership of CVHC on April 1.
But Mealey said he’ll still be involved with CVHC, and he emphasized that the work is never done.
“What we also would like is to get a whole lot more money to build affordable housing. We could always use a lot more,” he said. “But I think we’ve done new things all along, we’ve found different ways to do things, and I expect to see that happening.”