ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP: Steaven Jones '50 Tackles Housing for the Homeless in L.A.

Developer and philanthropist Steaven Jones ’50 and his daughter and business partner, Lawry Meister (pictured left), admittedly had to think outside of the box to tackle homeless problems in Los Angeles, but they didn’t have to look any further than that city’s shipyards for part of the solution.

“There are five million abandoned shipping containers from China sitting at the Port of Long Beach,” said Jones, referring to the second largest container port in the U.S., second only to the Port of Los Angeles. “For $3,000 you can get a huge container.”

Their first “outside of the box” idea was to use shipping containers to help keep costs down for a housing complex for the homeless. The second piece of the puzzle was to turn to private financing for the project. Together, they founded Flyaway Homes, with a goal to end homelessness by building quality permanent supportive housing for less money and a shorter time frame than traditional methods. Their focus is on the chronically homeless who have been on the street 2-5 years.

“We’ve got so many people on the streets, we needed to do something,” said Jones. “The cost is very expensive if you do it conventionally. My daughter and I put our heads together and came up with the idea of Flyaway Homes. We did it by raising our own capital for the first job by paying my family and friends a five percent return on their social impact equity,” said Jones, explaining that the housing units are financed entirely by backers who are willing to accept a modest return on money invested in a socially beneficial purpose. Although Flyaway is a for-profit company, it is run as a social benefit organization. Its officers receive no pay, and all revenues above the investors’ returns are converted into more housing.

“We didn’t wait for tax credits, we didn’t wait for any kind of government loans. We wanted to show what we could do. We were able to build them for one third of the cost and in one third of the time than you can do a conventional job, which gave us the acceleration of getting something done because you just can’t wait; there are so many people that need this housing. Permanent supportive housing is really the only solution to solving the problem, but it’s expensive,” asserts Jones. “Our first deals were all cash from investors. Subsequently, we received grants from the United Way, the city, and bond funds. As we scale up, we hope to receive funds from foundations and financial entities.”

Jones is a 20-year board member with The People Concern, a non-profit that provides crucial support to the project and is closely aligned with the work of Flyaway Homes. That agency, in turn, finds the subsidized tenants, collects the rent, and provides the services. “The People Concern provides the services that are the key for the homeless. We have trained mental clinicians who are meeting with them, often to keep them on their meds, to keep them stabilized, and keep them focused on their life. We teach them budgeting and other skills for managing their life. We have interim shelters for 6-9 months to recover from their dependency. I have been on the board for 20 years, and they treat every human being with the utmost dignity. They feel they are worth something, and we turn people’s lives around.”

With the People Concern, we are hoping to be able to house 20,000 people by 2028. Hopefully other people will follow our lead, so there will be momentum.

His own life took a turn when his parents divorced, and his mother made the decision to send him to Baylor as a boarding student, believing he would obtain a better education than what the schools in his hometown had to offer. “Baylor was really my defining hour. I know deep in my heart that I would not have gone to Harvard if I had not gone to Baylor because Baylor gave me the foundation to think critically and the self confidence that I needed.”

The Steaven Jones Development Company has been involved in hundreds of projects in Los Angeles and Southern California for 54 years, but it grew from humble beginnings. A Harvard Business School graduate, Jones moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Judith, and was working for a large real estate company when he decided to start his own business. He was 32 years old, and the couple was raising two daughters, ages two and two months, and had $2,000 in the bank. “I went to my wife and said I wanted to go into business for myself, and you know what she said? ‘Go get ’em!’”

He would go on to develop over 100 commercial projects, primarily in Southern California. He pioneered the concept of an automotive care mall in 1975 and was one of the first to develop creative office space in 1990. “It was not easy because I was under capitalized, but I couldn’t let anyone down. I did everything under the sun just to make a few dollars, but after seven years I finally had enough money to put down on my very first development deal, and from there I continued to grow my company.”

The big question on Jones’s mind for Flyaway’s future is scaling up and ensuring that the for-profit model can work. “The first one only houses 32 people, and the second one will house probably another 30 or 40 people. That’s not putting a big dent in the 59,000 homeless individuals who are out there. But we have a goal, and it’s a very grandiose goal. With the People Concern, we are hoping to be able to house 20,000 people by 2028. Hopefully other people will follow our lead, so there will be momentum.”

Jones believes other communities and cities can work on similar housing solutions for the homeless. “There is certainly no reason why the fundamental techniques and qualities could not be applied – we would be happy to offer advice and provide guidance for other cities. Homelessness is a universal situation and is not unique to one place.”