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Special Section: Religious Life

A model of what can happen when tenants organize


The Mercy Sisters actually have two housing organizations. The second is the 1983-founded McAuley Institute of Silver Spring, Md. While Mercy Housing tends to build or buy properties, the institute -- named for the Mercy’s founder -- focuses more on sustaining existing communities with an $11 million revolving loan fund.

Close to Washington, McAuley Institute is deep into national advocacy on behalf of housing needs. It provides technical assistance to housing groups nationwide and honors others who improve the housing situation.

The Institute’s most recent Courage in Housing Award went to Svanna Koeurt, founder and executive director of Stockton, Calif.’s Asian Pacific Self-Development and Residential Association.

Seventeen years ago, Koeurt, pregnant and carrying a 4-year-old in her arms, was dodging bullets to escape from war-torn Cambodia into Thailand. In the crime-plagued and overcrowded Park Village apartment complex where she ended up in the United States, Koeurt organized tenants -- mainly Southeast Asians who could barely speak English -- to buy the 230-unit complex and drive out the criminals.

Koeurt arranged the money -- none from Mercy sources. Her efforts won an $8 million rehabilitation loan, plus a 15-year commitment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for project-based Section 8 (rental) housing subsidies. The new owners reconfigured the complex into 185 two-bedroom and 22 four-bedroom units with a large community building, meeting rooms, child care facilities, an office and classrooms.

Today it’s one model of what can work when tenants organize.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999