Oct 10Developer Spotlight Erika Villablanca: Associate Director of Real Estate
Born in a small town in Nicaragua, Erika, her mother, and siblings were forced to flee their home country after the outbreak of civil war in the 1970s. Her mother was fearful that her two teenage sons would be taken by the government or by the rebels to fight in the conflict. The family flew to Los Angeles with only their clothes and a few personal possessions, hoping they would be able to return to Nicaragua in a few months when the situation had stabilized. But the civil war dragged on for years, and the Villablanca family remained in Los Angeles.
Erika and her family faced many of the same challenges experienced by immigrants and refugees today: the need to learn English quickly; difficulty finding living-wage employment; and lack of safe and affordable housing. Their family of five went from living in a comfortable house to a small cramped studio apartment. At times, there were as many as nine or 10 people living there when other family members arrived in the U.S. The apartment had numerous problems, but the family did not complain, fearing their landlord would raise the rent or try to evict them for overcrowding.
Her mother placed a high value on education and encouraged her children to study hard. Despite living in an increasingly rough neighborhood with major gang activity, Erika was determined to excel in school. She graduated from high school and went on to study Political Economy of Latin America at UC Berkeley before getting a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at UCLA and another master’s degree in Urban Planning as well.
Erika spent the next few years honing her real estate development skills at various organizations in the Los Angeles area. She joined Mercy Housing in 2013 and soon began working on Caroline Severance Manor, an extremely complex project that ended up winning the 2014 Affordable Housing Finance Readers’ Choice Award for Best Family Development.
Currently she’s working on the 6th and San Julian development, 94 homes targeted for formerly homeless individuals. Seventy-five apartments will be reserved for people living on Skid Row. Erika drives through Skid Row almost every day on her way to work. Although the problem can seem insurmountable, Erika is proud to know that at least 75 of these people will have a home soon, “Seeing the poverty can be gut-wrenching, and it feels good to be making even a little dent.”
The favorite part of her work as a developer is working with residents during the community outreach process, when she can connect with people by sharing Mercy Housing’s mission and values. Her first community outreach experience at Mercy Housing was for Phase IV of New Dana Strand in Wilmington. The community is predominantly low-income Spanish-speaking families living in overcrowded housing. Erika conducted the meetings in Spanish and found that the stories she heard were very similar to her own story.
Being able to connect with these families was key in getting many of them to support the project at city hearings.
She is proud of what she has achieved, adding that, “I work at Mercy Housing because the families and individuals we work for deserve to have the opportunity to succeed, to live in an apartment that’s safe and clean, and a place where their children can grow and thrive.”
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