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Kingdom and Malachi at Lillie Mae Jones Plaza

Affordable housing opens in the Iron Triangle, targeting those in need

on October 17, 2011

When Reina Portillo was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband, Jose Pedro Albarron Lopez, lost his job, her family, including four children and one grandchild, crammed into whatever one-bedroom apartment they could afford that month. They lived like that for years.

Since July, Portillo and her family have lived in the Lillie Mae Jones Plaza, in a spacious four-bedroom apartment, with affordable rent and social services in the building.

“My mom couldn’t work any more and it was only my father working,” Ana, their daughter said, “we couldn’t work, we were minors then.” She added that this a good move, sounding relieved.

Almost all of the residents of the newly opened housing development on Macdonald Avenue in the Iron Triangle were homeless or at risk of being homeless before they moved in, said Sandy Rose, the mental health housing services coordinator in Contra Costa County.

Robin Greene had been living in different housing every three months, on the verge of homelessness, before she and her 18-month-old son Malachi moved into the Lillie Mae Jones Plaza.

“It’s the first time he has had his own room,” she said. “He loves his room.”

Grand opening of the Lillie Mae Jones Plaza

The Lillie Mae Jones Plaza celebrated its grand opening last Thursday. All but one of the 26 units were filled during the celebration. (photo by: Wendi Jonassen)

Many of the residents of the Lille Mae Jones Plaza were previously homeless or at risk of being homeless because of mental or physical health issues, Rose said. Some have mental health issues recognized by the state and others have illnesses, such as HIV, AIDS and cancer, which affect their ability to work and maintain a living situation.

James Pavelka had been looking for a new living situation for years while staying at a hotel in downtown Oakland since 2006. He has been living at Lillie Mae Jones Plaza since July 29 and calls it “nice and peaceful.”

Pavelka and the Portillo/Lopez family acquired their units via a lottery system. Social services decided who got the first 13 of the units, with priority going to those who needed help the most and were also the most willing to receive help.

Though low income was a requirement for all residents, about 100 people applied for the lottery to get the 13 open units. Those who didn’t get in this round are on the waitlist in case a resident moves out.

“The fact that 100 applicants were received for 13 units tells us that more is needed,” said Eleanor Piez, a resource development director at the Community Housing Development Corporation. “The foreclosure epidemic has thrown people out of housing, putting a bigger strain on rental housing.”

All 26 units in the building were designed for residents with mental or physical disabilities and about 20 are designated as Section 8.

All but one unit were occupied during the grand opening.

The units are also ready to accommodate new residents and their specific needs, Piez said. Solar panels help reduce residents’ utility bills. There are energy-efficient appliances and sustainable flooring materials, and the landscaping is designed for better climate control in the units.

The countertops are slightly lower than usual in each unit for those in wheelchairs and there are grab-bars in the shower and the bathroom for those who need stability. There are ramps and elevators to make every place of the Lillie Mae Jones Plaza accessible.

In addition to all the other amenities, there is an on-site coordinator, Teresa Jenkins, who helps the residents “bridge gaps” between what they need and the county and city provide.

Jenkins, who works for Rubicon Programs, will walk a resident to an employment office, call a social worker, or organize a food bank drop for residents.

“If a resident has a problem with food, by all means, I get food,” Jenkins said. She goes to them and asks what they need, even if they don’t approach her first.

Even the property manager, Roeshawn Black, who lives on the property, helps “guide them, point them in the right direction, and develop their own independence,” Black said.

Some, if not most, of the residents have never lived on their own.

The building, which includes a computer room, a community room, a courtyard and a garden, looks modern and impressive on the corner of First Street and MacDonald Avenue.

The Community Housing Development Corporation acquired the property in 2002 and started building in 2006.

After all was done, the project cost close to $12 million.

Lillie Mae Jones

Lillie Mae Jones loudly criticized the City Council at the opening of the affordable housing unit on McDonald Ave. (photo by: Wendi Jonassen)

“Pretty much any entity that might be able to fund a project like this did something,” said Piez, listing off funders that included the city of Richmond, Contra Costa County, state mental services, HUD services, and many more.

“A grain of sand on a grain of sand, 10 years later you get this,” Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said.

Many agreed that the addition of the Lillie Mae Jones Plaza, in addition to new senior housing and the remodeling of Nevin Park, is starting to transform that part of MacDonald.

“When you have new development in a community, it changes the dynamic of a community,” said Otheree Christian, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council. “It gives hope.”

Many of the speakers at the grand opening, including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Lillie Mae Jones, added that this portion of MacDonald Ave still needs more small business.

Lillie Mae Jones scoffed loudly at the City Council any chance she got, telling anyone who would listen that Richmond isn’t doing enough.

Despite it all, she said, “For the sake of survival, we all got to work together to make changes.”

Greg Longo was happy to move into the Lillie Mae Jones Plaza from Walnut Creek when he won the lottery. “I love being amongst real people,” he said, reflecting on his new neighborhood.

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