Dana Spain often says she “was volunteered” into philanthropy by her late father Bernard Spain, a highly successful retailer, long before her thirteenth birthday. Shortly before he died, Dana Spain raised concern about veterans housing to her father, based on her own experience running Helping Achieve Veteran Empowerment Now (HAVEN), founded as a transitional shelter for female veterans.
Dana Spain proudly describes HAVEN as providing a very strong enrichment program that included fiduciary counseling for financial responsibility, how to shop on a budget, self-defense courses, and even cooking classes, yoga and a book club – all accomplished with the aid of local veterans’ service organizations and individuals who care about veterans’ health and well-being.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are at least 40,000 homeless veterans – and many more stuck in substandard housing. Seven in ten of the 4,300 homeless female veterans are single mothers. Many of these veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and veteran suicide rates are double that of the general population.
In fact, approximately 1 in 4 of our female veterans reports Military Sexual Trauma, a form of PTSD.
The only problem with HAVEN, says Dana Spain, was that after the 9-to-12-month program, graduates would be routinely put into abject squalor in slumlord-run apartments under market-rate leases paid for almost exclusively via subsidies from the Veterans Administration and the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
In Dana Spain’s words, one lease I reviewed was $950 a month for “basically a broom closet that didn’t even have a full suite of kitchen appliances.”
Worse, says Dana Spain, these widely scattered units left the women without the sense of community which they had experienced both in the military and throughout their stay at HAVEN. “That kind of camaraderie, that community-based lifestyle where they share the same fears and stresses and mutual support – when they are separated from one another, it is a major loss of family.”
Dana Spain contends that you cannot live the American dream if you do not have a safe place to lay your head at night. Now, “safe” also means “respectable” – that means no drugs in the hallway, no worries about getting attacked on your doorstep, elevators and lighting that work, sprinklers in case of fire – not the kind of units that all too often government agencies deem sufficient for veterans – or seniors.
Dana Spain had an idea to share with her dad. She had been consulting and investing in a modular construction company – Volumetric Building Companies (VBC) — that manufactures its own modules. And, in one of his last significant business decisions, Bernard Spain told his daughter, “Let’s build safe, resilient, respectable housing for our veterans, since the city, state, and federal governments don’t seem interested in doing just that.”
And so they created the VBC Giving Foundation.
In a very short timeframe, VBCGF has garnered support from within VBC’s own coalition of modular manufacturing companies, including raw and finished materials suppliers, developers, and real estate experts from across the nation. Together they created a time-efficient, environmentally sound method to build high-quality multi-family modular projects anywhere in the United States.
This modular design can provide residents with safe, affirming living spaces in which to build their futures and also help ease the housing burden for municipalities and government agencies.
What’s more, to avoid having a good idea caught up in a bureaucratic maze, the Bernard Spain Veterans Village eschewed government funding. “Everything is done through financial contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations,” she reports.
The idea, says Dana Spain, is for the initial investment to not only provide equity seed money for future housing projects, but more so to educate other veterans service organizations, interested parties, developers, and anyone with buildable property wherein modular construction offers significant advantages.
VBCGF can build 50, maybe 100, units a year, but that just scratches the surface. Already a veterans’ group in Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) and another group in Tucson (Arizona) focused on senior-aged veterans are considering using the VBCGF template.
The VBCGF is also completely transparent, says Dana Spain. “We will share our construction budget, our architectural plans, and our fundraising methods with anyone who wants to build Affordable housing. We know the considerations governments require in housing for veterans and seniors – but because we have chosen not to take government money or tax credits, we have much more latitude in how we can build and who can take part in the construction process.”
Take tax credits, for example. They are not actual money. There is a lot of upfront work – and hoops to be jumped through – to qualify. Then you have to go to the tax credit market and sell the credits or bring in an investor for them. The likely result is that you get less than the face value of the credit in the long run – on top of all the hassle.
Grants may be even worse. To properly fill out the request for proposal (RFP), you likely need lawyers, consultants, or grant writers just to get a grant that may cover 1 to 5 percent of your construction costs. But then you may have to pay prevailing wages and build according to codes that often border on the ridiculous. In Pennsylvania, that includes non-standard closet doors for “affordable” housing units – which quite likely are more expensive than standard closet doors.
The $6 million, 47-unit Veterans Village is essentially completed, though VBCGF is still waiting on electrical components from the global supply chain shortage. The three staged units are spacious and beautiful, with lots of natural light. Best of all, there are partners willing to furnish these apartments for veterans coming out of homelessness or a transitional shelter with beds, bedding, tableware and other essentials. Village residents will have what they need to make a house, a home.
Veterans Village is more than just a template for nonprofits willing to build housing for veterans, seniors, special needs adults, and female heads of households, or anyone needing the stability a home provides; Dana Spain believes that VBC’s modular approach to housing construction can work just as well in the for-profit sector.
VBC did not invent the concept of modular housing; today, modular construction is used for projects ranging from single family homes to apartment complexes. Dana Spain hopes however that as the number of for-profit modular units increases, developers will also partner with community-based organizations and individuals to reserve some of that housing for veterans and other underserved communities in need.
Duggan Flanakin is a Senior Policy Analyst at CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) in Washington, D.C.