(Editor's Note: This is the third story in a series on how Petaluma nonprofits are finding creative ways to survive despite an uncertain economy and reduced public funding.)
On a sunny Monday afternoon, brightly dressed seniors at Vallejo Street Apartments casually browsed an array of fresh — and free — produce in the courtyard outside their community center, picking through everything from apples to artichoke to eggplant, all provided by local farms and grocery stores.
The weekly market is a feature that the residents at the Vallejo Street Senior Apartments, an affordable housing complex for seniors built by Petaluma Ecumenical Properties, have come to expect.
"There's a lot of organic to choose from; I'm really grateful for it," said a woman who identified herself as Soma. She added that the market was just one of many things that she appreciated about living at the property.
Such programs wouldn't be possible without help from the community, said PEP Housing's Executive Director Mary Stompe. And as funding dries up as a result of the national budget deficit as well as state and local budgetary constraints, PEP will be seeking even more community involvement and donations to keep the organization thriving, she said.
Over the last 34 years, PEP Housing has built 12 — soon to be 13 — affordable housing complexes for seniors in Petaluma, which all tolled house more than 300 people.
But now, despite long waiting lists that will only grow longer as Petaluma baby boomers reach retirement age, a combination of economic factors make it unlikely that there will be much new affordable housing built in town, Stompe said.
"It's going to be difficult to build affordable housing in Petaluma," Stompe said, acknowledging that Petaluma has been "amazingly supportive" of such housing projects, but that funding has simply gone away.
Just this year, the state did away with redevelopment agencies, which redirected money away from municipal economic development and housing projects like PEP and into the state's coffers. The loss of redevelopment funds hit PEP Housing especially hard, Stompe said, because the organization leveraged that money to bring in equal or greater monies from other agencies.
PEP is also losing out on federal funds for senior housing that were not renewed in 2013 and other capital improvement funds that, before they dried up, helped provide money for projects like fixing old, leaky roofs.
"What we're seeing is seniors showing up at our door, saying, &‘I need a place to live today,'" Stompe said. "That's hard, because there's already a long waiting list, and there's no other place to go."
Already, Stompe said, the waiting list is one and a half years long; those needing federally subsidized housing may have to wait even longer.
Stompe predicted that, as a result of the lack of local funding, PEP will have to build future affordable housing projects outside of Petaluma, in larger cities with more funding sources.
Still, Stompe said, the organization has not given up on the prospect of building new projects in Petaluma. It is looking at funding new facilities through sources like state and federal tax credits that incentivize businesses to invest in affordable housing and public/ private partnerships. But most likely, PEP Housing's near future will consist of fundraising at the local level to maintain current properties, rather than building new ones.