OAKLAND, Calif. – A decade ago, affordable housing was just a longing among the Bay Area Native community. That need was realized last month in Oakland when the $27 million Seven Directions healthcare and affordable housing facility opened amid nationwide despair over a failing economy.
“We could have abandoned the project over the last 10 years, but we always went back to the community,” said Martin Waukazoo, director of the Native American Health Center in Oakland. “I’m very proud, but there’s much more work to be done.”
Housing prices are skyrocketing in the Bay Area and greater numbers of the 50,000 Natives here have been moving from San Francisco to more affordable East Bay cities. Some others continue to struggle with homelessness, often drifting between the homes of relatives.
Situations such as these aren’t likely to improve, according to national data released the same day of Seven Direction’s opening. It showed construction on new U.S. homes has slumped to the lowest level since the recession in 1991. A year into the bursting of the housing bubble, the U.S. economy continues to barrel downhill, leading in part to the global financial crisis.
Well before the downturn, Madeline Lopez and her three children were living with her grandmother in San Francisco. She’s in her thirties, is a member of the Nooksack tribe in Washington and is a recipient of medical and other services at the NAHC in San Francisco.
Now, she’s also a resident of a three-bedroom apartment in the rust and golden hued 21,000-square-foot Seven Directions building on International Avenue – the first urban Indian health center in the nation that combines primary care, housing and cultural components. The 36 low-income apartments, medical and dental facility were created in a design that resembles adobe pueblos.
Lopez was referred by outreach worker Gloryanna Valerio-Leonce, who along with other NAHC staff members in San Francisco and Oakland encouraged Native clients with incomes less than 60 percent of the area’s median income to apply for housing.
“It definitely makes me feel very proud because we were all part of the project,” Valerio-Leonce said. “A lot of employees made donations and with something as little as $50 a month you feel like you really belong here, it’s very moving. Just walking through it, I almost cried.”
Residents were selected in a lottery drawing held by project partner East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit that has developed more than 700 affordable apartments and townhouses in 12 developments and 97 single-family homes over the last three decades.
Sadly, not as many Native families applied as NAHC staff had hoped. Lopez is one of an estimated three Native families in the building with an outdoor community ceremonial space.
“It’s really, really nice,” Lopez said. “My kids go to the school around the corner and they’re happy to have their own rooms.”
The city of Oakland and its Redevelopment Agency provided the funds to purchase the land, and construction funds were provided by the city, California Housing Finance Agency, MMA Financial, the Federal Home Loan Bank, Bank of the West, NCB Capital Impact, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, US Bank, Opportunity Fund, foundations and private individuals.
A mosaic story pole outside the building read, “In beauty happily I walk; with beauty before me happily I walk; with beauty behind me happily I walk.”
As those involved in the project were thanked during a crowded press conference, another resident stood outside proudly next to a cluster of orange and green balloons.
Joseph A. Waukazoo, 54, said he and his daughter, Phyllis, “took a chance” by applying for housing. When they were initially denied, he said, he wrote an emphatic letter asking for reconsideration.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said at the opening, looking up at the building just a few blocks from the nondescript gray building where the Oakland NAHC has provided medical and dental services and youth programming since 1972. That’s about a year after he and his brother, Martin, had moved to the Bay Area from South Dakota.
A flood earlier that year in Rapid City had killed 238 people and destroyed community centers, homes and even ball fields in their hometown, Waukazoo said. He was 17 and devastated; “I just had my whole existence wiped out. Me and my bro got on a plane and came out here,” he said.
Hundreds of Native families were already in Oakland, one of several urban destinations in the Relocation Era, which the Waukazoo brothers had visited before. Many were living in the Fruitvale District, a Latino neighborhood that boasts the largest Native population in Oakland.
Many Native families reside in the vicinity of the main strip of International Blvd., home to NAHC, the new Seven Directions building and, further down, the Intertribal Friendship House – which has been revived in recent years by a new board of directors as a vital community gathering space.
“There’s a creative force here, and a lot of spiritual presence in this area,” Waukazoo said. “We had the Alcatraz movement and other battles and this is just another step in that line – another major accomplishment of our people who were left out here on our own from relocation.”
Before his daughter, six-year-old niece and he moved here, they were homeless, Waukazoo said, living in San Leandro with relatives. He views the opportunity to live in Seven Directions as “the difference between my daughter being here and moving back to the reservation.”
Waukazoo grinned happily as he gave an informal tour of the building, its walls bathed in soothing cream and golden colors. Their life is more “ecological” now, he said, because of their centralized location. He and his girlfriend are able to walk or bike between NAHC, their apartment, the Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, his granddaughter’s school, IFH and downtown.
“We have cable,” he added. And the aesthetic elements of the five-story building – including an earthen ceremonial space in the courtyard, two totem poles, a water-wall and stained concrete medicine wheel – provide “elements of my culture” in an urban setting, Waukazoo said.
“It gives me, in a very basic simple sense, an identity,” he said.