By Verbal Adam | OBSERVER Correspondent
On July 13, NeighborWorks Sacramento cut the ribbon on its new housing resource center, HOUSED Sustainable Living and Education, in Oak Park.
The community educational hub is located on the first floor of the NeighborWorks Sacramento headquarters on Alhambra Boulevard. HUD certified housing counselors, real estate agents, mortgage and loan officers will offer classes on housing-related topics. Adjacent to HOUSED is ACCESS, a collaborative space for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Lauretta Casimir-Mahoney, CEO and president of NeighborWorks Sacramento, has led the organization for eight months. “You may have heard of NeighborWorks Sacramento over the last 36 years, but I can assure you that you do not know the NeighborWorks Sacramento that exists today,” she said. “This NeighborWorks is on a mission of restoration and reinvigorated with a deepened commitment to service.”
Her parents are originally from Louisiana but met in San Francisco while attending junior high school. Her mother was in the ROTC and her father was an athlete; Lauretta was born before either turned 15. She and her parents lived in the Hills Projects of San Francisco before relocating to Sacramento’s Oak Park when she was 7. Her upbringing was at times strained; her mom had become a single parent and money wasn’t abundant.
“I went to an all girls school,” she said. “I was in an environment where people had substantially more means and resources than I did. So a lot of it was just about finding out where I belong.”
Her mother, however, instilled values that would later define her as a leader. “I recall on Christmas morning we could never open our gifts before we would go out to the unhoused and we would hand out gloves and scarves and things that my mom would collect over the year from Dollar Store and things of that nature, and then on Thanksgiving, we would always pack up food and go hand it out,” Casimir-Mahoney said. “My mom instilled a drive in us that to whom much is given, much is required. Even when we didn’t have much … because just knowing that we had a roof over our head was much at times. So I think I carried that with me.”
Casimir-Mahoney’s family became unhoused when they could no longer afford their Arden apartment. They spent time sleeping on the sofa of one of her mom’s friends. She and her sister were uncomfortable living there and the family began sleeping in their car. She distinctly remembers the day they got a voucher for a motel room: “I remember the three of us jumping on the bed and my mom promising us that she would have a place for us before Christmas. And we got an apartment before Christmas, and that was the one and only time that we were unhoused. But it was a time in my life that’s still with me.”
A Determination To Never Be Homeless Again
She also faced the internal and external rigors of being a queer woman. “It’s a challenge as a Black woman in the community,” she said. “There’s a lot of taboo that comes with us as Black people and how we accept the LGBTQIA. And I think navigating that space as a child raised in church, trying to see where my faith aligned with who I am innately as a gay woman, has been my challenge.”
Casimir-Mahoney was a competitive swimmer and after graduating high school she enlisted in the Navy. After serving two years as a Navy paralegal, she was honorably discharged at age 21. She returned to Sacramento, where her first priority was to buy a home not only for security, but personal freedom and expression.
“As a child growing up around children that were privileged, I wanted simple things like being able to paint my room without permission,” she said. “I wanted something that no one could take from me. I didn’t have to worry about being evicted as long as I maintained my home. It would be mine and no one could take it.”
Casimir-Mahoney got a job in corporate sales. She and her partner at the time saved money by living on ramen noodles and canned tuna for a year. They borrowed from retirement accounts and borrowed $5,000 from her stepfather. Before her 22nd birthday, Casimir-Mahoney had her first home built in Elk Grove, which she sold years ago.
She left corporate sales and became a debt collector. She never felt that was a good fit, as it constantly challenged her own experience with being unhoused, as well as the core values her mother instilled in her.
Shortly after moving into their new home, she told her then partner: “I’m going to quit my job. I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m going to step out on faith and quit my job.”
Her faith was almost instantly rewarded. A friend of her mother reached out to her offering work in the mortgage industry. She pursued the opportunity despite some hesitancy, and a neighbor across the street became her first client. After seeing the check she was hooked – and terrified.
“It was kind of scary because I was making crazy money, money that I’d never seen,” Casimir-Mahoney said. “And someone gave me the book ‘The Courage to Be Rich,’ by Suze Orman. And it changed my thinking around money and what I could do with money. And it changed my trajectory of giving. Early on, I used to think the more money I had the more things I could acquire and that I would be at peace. But I realized that my peace came from giving.”
She continued in mortgages for several years, becoming influential enough to be known as ‘The Queen of Finance.’ A NeighborWorks Sacramento board member invited her to join in 2013. Ten years later she became CEO.
Motivated By Passion
Sara Lewis is a mother of three who was raised in Sacramento. She spent her youth hanging out at the Birdcage outdoor mall in Citrus Heights with her friends. She fell in love and married young, giving birth to her eldest daughter shortly after graduating high school. By the birth of her second child her marriage was deteriorating.
“I was right out of high school when I had children,” Lewis said. ”I didn’t have any college education, just skimmed through high school. I had two small children and a marriage that didn’t work out. I found myself in my early 20s homeless with two children. There wasn’t a lot of help or a lot of resources. I had to dig myself out of this hole right from that. And so as I got myself out of this hole and I got jobs and I found temporary housing and I did different things to find ways to get myself out of that situation. When I got into the mortgage industry, my number one thing was housing for everyone.
“When I got into the mortgage industry, it was a little bit different. Interest rates were different, housing prices were different, and it was a little bit easier to help the average buyer. And as time has progressed, inflation, interest rates, all that stuff has made it harder for just your normal person to be able to purchase a home.
“And I found myself in a situation where I was no longer fulfilled or happy being in this industry, where I was only able to get somebody preapproved that made $300,000 a year. I did research and found this organization [NeighborWorks Sacramento] and what it has to offer, I knew that that’s where I belonged. I left the mortgage industry to come here and focus on what I’m truly passionate about. And part of that is the homelessness crisis.”
Lewis now serves as NeighborWorks Sacramento’s director of sustainable living. Her primary role is to empower families to become self-sufficient by providing them with the necessary resources, guidance and support to achieve economic stability. Her current focus is setting up a NeighborWorks lending department, which will provide the community down-payment assistance and educational programs.
“I think people really need that education when it comes to either knowing how to buy a home, knowing how to keep a home, knowing how to hope to buy a home, and knowing what to do. If you find yourself in a homeless situation, you know, or a rental situation where your landlord isn’t doing legal things or threatening to kick you out or, you know, you don’t have sustainable housing from your rental, you know, it’s like those kind of things is what we’re providing here and more.”
When it comes to housing many view it as so basic a fundamental human right that it’s on par with having access to oxygen or water. Others view housing as a privilege to be earned like buying a car or eating at a fancy restaurant. In California, the world’s fourth largest economy, nearly $20 billion has been spent combating homelessness in the last four years with an additional estimated $5.6 billion to be spent in 2023. Yet the number of unhoused Californians continues to swell.
The housing instability crisis extends to housing costs, forced moves, overcrowding, substandard housing and unsafe neighborhoods. In Sacramento, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,585 and, according to the Federal Reserve, the average African American has only $1,510 in savings. In many cases the monthly cost of rent is higher than the monthly cost of a mortgage. In Oak Park, NeighborWorks – located at 2411 Alhambra Blvd. – is making strides in combating housing insecurity.