Vanessa Cooper Bridges Gaps in Alameda Housing

Vanessa Cooper Bridges Gaps in Alameda Housing


Vanessa Cooper has reached out to Alameda Point Collaborative, Alameda Boys and Girls Club, and Alameda Family Services.

Against a backdrop of skyrocketing rents, Alameda Housing Authority Director Vanessa Cooper is calm, focused, and driven. Yet her authority itself is feeling the stress of low- and middle-income people being driving out of Alameda and the Bay Area.

Against a backdrop of skyrocketing rents and upheaval in the regional housing market, Alameda Housing Authority Director Vanessa Cooper is calm, focused, and driven. Yet her authority itself is feeling the stress of low- and middle-income people being driven out of Alameda and the Bay Area.

Authority housing waitlists are all full—and when they were opened early in 2015, they had 36,000 applicants. “That’s a staggering number,” said Jeff Miller, the head of the Boys & Girls Club of Alameda.

Despite the daunting challenge of helping low-income residents find homes, Cooper said she was drawn to work on the Island in part because the city’s commitment to building new affordable housing—a solution that provides the long-term stability people need. She started as executive director in September 2014, replacing Michael Pucci, who had overseen the housing agency for 20 years.

Her commitment to providing stable, affordable housing to Alamedans is a passion that suits her organized, proactive mind. Born in Kenya and raised in England, Cooper earned an MBA from England’s Durham University and spent five years as an analyst and project manager for the Bank of England before shifting to work for social service agencies in the South Bay where she was, most recently, director of real estate services for Santa Clara County’s Housing Authority.

“You can’t walk across the road from the housing authority without seeing someone who needs housing,” Cooper said. “It’s hard for all of us. Our front-desk staff get many, many, many people who come in asking for help. … Housing is a need we all have, regardless of our income level.”

The authority’s mandate is to manage the 572 units that it owns alone or with other entities; to oversee the federal Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, which provides subsidies for low-income people to rent privately owned properties; and to manage the development of new housing. About 4,000 people are currently housed through the housing authority’s facilities and programs in Alameda.

There are several projects more in the pipeline, Cooper noted, all of which are funded by private investment through a low-income housing tax credit program and conventional, long-term mortgages. The former Island High site on Eagle Avenue will see the construction of 22 apartments and is expected to break ground at the end of 2016. Thirty-one apartments for seniors will be built as part of the Del Monte project, which is slated to begin construction in 2017. And 32 family-affordable units at Alameda Landing are expected to be open for occupancy in mid-2017.

It takes years to plan for, fund, and build affordable units, but the end result is concrete and quantifiable—and provides long-term relief. “You can put something in the ground that can help people even when you’re gone,” Cooper said. “Building housing locks both land and property so it is not subject to the massive changes we see in the market.”

Doug Biggs of the Alameda Point Collaborative, which provides supported housing for 500 formerly homeless people and works in partnership with the housing authority on some subsidized units, concurs with Cooper’s vision.

“Vanessa has come in with a really good agenda of creating more housing opportunities, and we are seeing some of that take place now,” Biggs said.

With developing supported living communities in mind, Cooper has created a partnership with Alameda Family Services to provide on-site mental health services.

“Vanessa’s focus on creating partnerships in the social service community as well as bringing in onsite support makes a big difference in the lives of AHA residents,” said social worker Karen Zeltzer, who provides clinical services to the housing authority. “Living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet is a tremendous stressor, and many residents experience depression, anxiety, PTSD.”

Miller of the Boys & Girls Club of Alameda, which works with the authority to provide after-school programming for all residents between ages 6 and 18, also touts the authority’s priorities.

“They have been a champion of after-school programming,” he said. “They go out proactively into the communities they serve and talk to the parents and let them know about the club.”

The two agencies purchased a van to help with transportation to the club, and “walking school buses” come to the club from area schools like Paden and The Academy of Alameda.