Westmont Magazine Building a Solution to California's Housing Crisis: Lifting So Others Can Rise

With home prices and rents continuing to rise throughout California, the state faces an increasing need for more affordable housing. The legislature has mandated that communities construct more housing, and Santa Barbara struggles to meet its designated goal. In places like the Coachella Valley with severe shortages of affordable rentals, too many residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Many of the people who work there can barely afford to live there. In Santa Barbara’s exorbitantly expensive housing market, key people like teachers, law enforcement, emergency responders, nurses and college professors often live outside of the city and face long commutes.

Heather Racine Vaikona
Heather Racine Vaikona '02

Two Westmont alums are addressing these issues. Heather Vaicona is leading a coalition of non-profits and government agencies investing in the construction of affordable housing in the Coachella Valley. Aaron Cooke considers the problem from the perspective of an economist and concludes that building more housing provides the best solution to the problem.

Heather Racine Vaikona ’02 found her calling as a college student: bringing people together and getting things done. “I can draw a straight line from my experience at Westmont to my work today,” she says. The president and CEO of Lift to Rise, she has received state and national recognition for building a coalition of 50 stakeholders committed to increasing housing affordability and economic opportunity for all residents of California’s Coachella Valley. Westmont honored her at the 85th Anniversary Gala in October 2022 as one of 85 exemplary community members.

Heather spent chunks of her childhood living overseas, especially in Tonga, where her father developed the nation’s first television station. Fluent in Tongan, she finished her high school career there. Her first year at Westmont, Heather decided to organize a group of students to spend the summer of 1999 serving people in Tonga. “I put up a sign in the D.C. that said, ‘Do you want to go to Tonga with me this summer?’ and 26 students showed up at the meeting,” she says. “I was 18 and didn’t know how to organize things. It was my first foray into all the things I do now.”

Lift to Rise: Coachella Valley Housing

Pastor Curt Peterson at Montecito Covenant helped raise money to get students to Tonga and fund projects there. “I called everyone I could think of, including families, friends and businesses,” she says. “We raised enough for everyone to go. But it was kind of a disaster as I had no experience. Taking young, affluent teens into an emerging country that had never been colonized meant I had to navigate a lot of issues relative to sensitivity.”

Undaunted, Heather took another group the next summer, and the students renovated the children’s ward at the hospital. “Importing materials from other countries turned out to be complex as we had to pay duties and taxes,” she says. “I learned how to pick up the phone and call people to get what we needed — and not settle for, ‘No.’ I figured out how to make things work in a cross-cultural situation.”

Lift to Rise: Coachella Valley Housing

A communication studies major with a minor in French literature, Heather also interned for the Dream Foundation as a student. “Their development director taught me how to raise funds and build relationships — how to make a phone call, ask for help and follow through,” she says.

After college, Heather married a professional rugby player from Tonga and lived with him and their three children mostly in England but also in Paris. She did some poverty work for offshoot organizations and urban churches in England. Then in 2011, when her marriage began to fall apart, her brother died unexpectedly, and her aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

With her three young children, she moved back to the United States in 2012, settling in an unincorporated area of the Coachella Valley to be near her aunt — who died two weeks after Heather arrived. Still grieving for her brother and facing this new loss, Heather decided to stay in the valley, a region of nine cities in Riverside County. She’s still there. “It’s the longest I’ve ever lived in one place,” she says.

Lift to Rise: Coachella Valley Housing

“I was 32 with three kids living in the middle of the desert. My marriage was dissolving, and grief overwhelmed me. I had to be honest with myself and with God. I was carrying all the weight of the world, and knew I couldn’t live the rest of my life this way. I was terrified of being a divorcee in the Christian community. I felt like a failure. How would I survive? But God knit all these things together for a purpose.

I thought of the book of Isaiah: God will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. I just had to figure out how to organize life as a single woman.”

For several years, Heather consulted with non-profits in the Los Angeles area, helping them develop effective fundraising plans. In 2014, she found her first job in the Coachella Valley with United Way of the Desert as a resource development director. She began building partnerships in the community by implementing collective impact. This approach creates networks and promotes equity as organizations, institutions, agencies and individuals learn together, align their work and integrate their actions to bring about significant change.

Lift to Rise

In 2015, she took a job with a Feeding America food bank in Riverside County as director of community investment and continued her collaborative work. “Funding agencies in the Coachella Valley recognized they were investing in the same things in a disconnected way, and it wasn’t working,” she says. “I told them I had experience bringing people together and starting coalitions using a collective impact approach.”

Serendipitously, Heather connected with Gary Painter at the USC School of Public Policy, who had just launched the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation. Painter agreed to help, working with Heather and her group to get a $500,000 seed grant from Feeding America and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to improve food security and household stability in the Coachella Valley.

To address hunger, the group explored the root causes of food insecurity. In 2015, researchers at USC delved into data from 20,000 residents in the valley and discovered that reducing the number of people who spend one-third or more of their income on rent would lead to other positive outcomes in their lives.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation supported Heather’s coalition with a leadership development grant so they could create a stronger network and become more adaptive leaders. “The grant put me on the road, and I traveled a lot to connect with academic and funding partners outside of the valley,” Heather says. “That made it easier to build networks locally.”

Heather also found resources through the Center for Community Investment (CCI) at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which “helps communities create equitable, effective investment systems that can achieve their visions so all residents flourish.” Marian Urquilla, CCI co-founder, mentored Heather. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, and we can learn from people doing this elsewhere,” she says.

In 2018, Heather became the president and CEO of the newly created nonprofit Lift to Rise, which seeks to collaboratively solve the underlying causes of poverty. “We work to lift, so everyone can rise,” Heather says. “We set a 10-year goal of reducing by 30 percent the number of people paying more than one-third of their income in rent. This would make a significant impact on the population. We established a challenging goal: increasing the supply of affordable housing by 10,000 units.”

From the beginning, Heather developed strong partnerships with Riverside County officials. “People in our region are burdened with high housing costs, with many of them work low-wage jobs in the hospitality and recreation sectors,” she says. “Local communities and agencies have aligned to work together rather than fighting each other.”

Lift to Rise identified the policies they needed to pass to reach the goal and surveyed the housing inventory before building an agenda. Reviewing this information, the coalition decided to launch a catalyst fund of $100 million to invest in affordable housing.

Limited financial activity in rural areas like the Coachella Valley makes financial institutions there more reluctant to loan money and assume risk. “We learned from others how to structure the capital so we could get in the game and unlock more resources, especially from federal funds,” Heather says.

“We started fundraising and making big asks — and then the pandemic hit,” she says. “Flying back from Sacramento in March 2020, I wrote on the back of an envelope: Now what are we going to do? Everything is closing.”

Heather knew they needed to help people suddenly out of work. “We raised $2 million to fund an Economic Protection Plan and gave $200 in cash to anyone in the Coachella Valley who asked for it. We built a website aggregating all the resources available to people. We helped 8,000 households and learned directly from residents what was happening in their lives and what their biggest needs were. More than half of them couldn’t pay their rent.”

In addition, Riverside County made the third-largest allocation of relief funds at the time: $33 million. In all, Lift to Rise deployed $300 million helping 75,000 households representing 120,000 local residents. Researchers at USC documented this accomplishment in their two-year review of the organization.

“The pandemic showed us what we could accomplish when we work together,” Heather says. “Our Emergency Rental Assistance Program provided short-term help; at its peak, 48 people worked on the initiative.” Lift to Rise won an award as California non-profit of the Year in Sacramento.

This success led to an invitation for Heather to attend Domestic Policy Council meetings at the White House last summer. In November, she returned to the White House and met with Gene Sperling, President Biden’s chief economic adviser, to discuss the rental assistance program and the organization’s long-term plans. She has also hosted a webinar with him.

“Meeting Gene Sperling was a meaningful experience in my life,” she says. “He spoke about our work in the Coachella Valley, and I felt humbled and a profound sense of gratitude for what we’re doing. It’s not about housing policy; we do this because we love people and will go to the wall to give them opportunities. I can draw a straight line from Westmont to that moment. The stuff I do now has always been in my heart.”

Heather has resumed raising money and working with her stakeholders to create the $100 million investment fund. In June 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom made a $15 million allocation to the Coachella Valley Housing Catalyst Fund to increase housing affordability and economic opportunity for all residents.

“I love solving problems and thinking about things in a deep way,” Heather says. “I know the purpose God has for my life. My experiences and losses have allowed me to look at life and work differently. My skill is knowing how to get things done. I’m a generalist, and I have tenacity and something in my heart that drives me. We need to love people, to connect with them and believe that all things are possible. When we face a difficult or abusive situation, God is with us, and we have what we need within ourselves. He can turn loss and heartbreak into something beautiful.”