Nonprofit Sector

Sierra House: Building Quality Affordable Housing in Greater Newark, NJ

Foundation for Greatness
Ken Bland of NFF and Keely Freeman of Sierra House smiling for a photo in an office

Sierra House is a community-centered nonprofit in Newark, NJ that fosters independence for youth, low-to-moderate income families, and homeless young adults in the Newark area through housing, education, and community services. 

NFF made $375,000 in facility loans to Sierra House, with an additional $450,000 in the pipeline, which they are using to provide quality affordable homes to families. 

Hear about Sierra House’s work in their own words

A two story home under construction in Newark, NJ
A Sierra House affordable home under construction in Newark, NJ

Newark is an anchor city in New Jersey. Its history of welcoming immigrants from all over the world has created a rich blend of cultures and cuisines. Newark scores in the top two percent of communities nationwide for the number of arts, culture, and entertainment firms as well as arts and cultural employees per capita. Beautiful Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ was the nation’s first county park and is home to the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the US.  

While there is so much to celebrate about Newark, its residents also face many challenges. The median household income is $35,199, compared to $82,545 for the state. Fifty-eight percent of renters in Newark are cost-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. And a third of all renters in Newark spend more than half of their income on housing. Since 2017, 40% of home sales in Newark have gone to institutional investors, which drives up property prices and risks displacing long-term residents. To put it simply, New Jersey’s high cost of living and high property prices make quality, affordable housing unattainable for many families. 

Sierra House is working to change that—to keep housing affordable and to keep home ownership within the community.

Sierra House is a nonprofit that provides housing, education, and other community services for young people and families in the greater Newark area. Their CEO, Keely Freeman, grew up in Newark and is deeply connected to the community. Sierra House is purchasing land, purchasing newly developed properties, and renovating existing homes in the Greater Newark Area, some of which are abandoned, and making them available as quality affordable housing for Essex County residents who might not otherwise be able to afford housing in their neighborhoods.

NFF is honored to be able to support Keely and Sierra House in their work, by financing several of Sierra House’s projects with facility acquisition and improvement loans. To date, we have provided $375,000 in loans for Sierra House, with more to come!

Hear directly from Sierra House leadership, staff, and a former client about the impact of their work in the greater Newark community.

Transcript

NIJAH: I was 22 years old. I had had my second child and I was homeless – going through like, you know, living place, the place with my children. I was calling around and then someone gave me the Sierra house. From that point on, my life was saved, like, I was no longer having to worry about where me and my children was going to sleep. 

TEXT ON SCREEN: Foundation for Greatness. Sierra House’s mission to build quality affordable homes in the greater Newark area. 

KEELY: Many people tend to think that if you’ve lived in a shelter, it's because you're jobless or you don't have any income. And that's absolutely not true. About 70% of the individuals and families that we serve actually are unemployed. They just cannot afford the costs of rents. 

NIJAH: I was working two jobs with two children, one was like a really small baby. And the rent was really high, and it was just me. I'm a single parent, so it was just like I couldn't do it. And I ended up being evicted. 

MARCIA: Dealing with the homeless population here, housing is the number one priority. The people that are from the community, in the community, that's been spending their dollars here and working here, they cannot afford that high price in apartments. 

TEXT ON SCREEN: New Jersey’s high cost of living makes quality affordable housing unattainable for many families. The United Way estimates New Jersey families need an income three times the federal poverty level to cover housing, food, and essential expenses.  

Federal poverty level: $26,500.  

Actual NJ Household basic needs: $82,176 

Sierra House fosters independence for youth, low-to-moderate-income families, and homeless young adults in the Newark area through housing, education, and community services. 

KEELY: What Sierra House is trying to do in response to the shortage of housing is to build more housing. 

MARCIA: The houses that are broken down, we go in, we fix it up. We turn it around and house low-income individuals, low-income families. 

KEN: So they work with other affordable housing developers and are able to produce residential properties that are for homeownership and also through leasing. And maintain a certain level of affordability through those units for working class and also for individuals who are low-to-moderate-income as well. 

KEELY: Affordable housing is a foundation to build on higher principles. It keeps the culture and fabric of the community intact. It also helps to build generational wealth. It also helps to build sustainable communities where each generation does a little better. 

MARCIA: Another part of that is to provide employment opportunities, build businesses for the people that are living in our community. 

KEELY: It makes the community safer and makes it a community that you would want to live in. So when we address things such as housing – which is a basic need – then you see less crime. You see a better, more productive community. And that's what we're hoping to yeild overall within the community. 

KEN: What's important is that long time residents, right, they're not pushed out because of their income. The main goal is to make sure that everyone is housed. Everyone has access to education. Everyone has access to healthy foods. And everyone has access to be able to purchase properties and their slice of the American dream and to be able to pass down generational wealth to future generations. 

TEXT ON SCREEN: Loans from Nonprofit Finance Fund helped Sierra House finance the acquisition and construction of new affordable housing units. 

KEELY: What NFF has enabled Sierra House to achieve is its mission. Its mission to provide more units of affordable housing to families that are in need of housing. It also allows us to free up other resources to do other work such as: address homelessness, address, autism, address other community needs. Going to a finance agency that understands our needs, understands our budget, understands our financials, and that can provide a product that's mission driven so that we can better serve our communities together is absolutely amazing. 

KEN: I think the thing that sets Sierra House apart is the staff and mainly Keely, you know. She has, you know, a wonderful breadth of experience from her financial tenure. And in addition to that, she has the trust of the community. 

KEELY: I think what I bring to our house is understanding. I grew up in Newark. I also live within the greater North area, so I understand this community. I understand the people and I understand the culture. I really love having that unique skill set where I can relate to our participants and our residents. 

NIJAH: I'm in school right now. I'm going for my bachelor's in social work because I want to kind of like share my story with people and just help in the best way I can. Also, I have stable housing because of the Sierra House. I've been stable living for three years now. Just finding the Sierra House, being able to have a safe place for me and my children, there's nothing I can do to ever repay them. 

TEXT ON SCREEN: NFF is helping communities gain control of assets that help them build wealth and power. Learn more and get involved.  

Learn more about how we support community ownership of assets.

Work with us to support affordable housing and community-owned assets.

Read more about our commitment to environmental justice. 

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