Mental Health Association of Oklahoma (MHAO) Promotes Community

Learn how the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma (MHAO) works with local communities to create affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“We have debt-free housing,” Michael W. Brose, director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma (MHAO), said. “We go on the open market and buy apartment buildings debt-free. We have 20 apartment buildings in 16 neighborhoods, with a total of 850 units in Tulsa. We have created a model funders can understand.” The Association was recently rebranded as a statewide organization.

The model works like this: the Association receives contributions from developers in the community. They take that pool of money and find an existing property that is properly vetted with public transportation close by and has employment opportunities in walking distance. There must also be accessible grocery stories, pharmacies, medical clinics, and dental care.

“We do a business pro forma statement to determine whether the cash flow will cover maintenance and taxes,” Brose said. “The fact that we are a cash buyer puts us in a good position when it comes to negotiating to purchase the property. We are tough negotiators. But if we keep the expense low, we can keep the rents low. People can rent our apartment with no money initially, but eventually they pay rent. We keep the rent at 30 % of income.

“We have a cadre of volunteers who help us vet the properties — this increases our base of support in the community. We have professionals in the real estate and banking community, working with us and saying ‘This is a good thing.’”

The one time the Association had people in the community object to one of their housing efforts was when they built new construction in partnership with the Oklahoma Housing Authority. “Instead of criticizing the critics, we accepted the challenge and used it as an opportunity to educate the community about what we do and our clients. We offered to take the opponents on a housing tour so they could understand what they were criticizing, and many did take the tour. In the end, we turned NIMBY ‘Not in my Backyard’ into community support.” Former critics even wrote editorials supporting the effort.

But affordable housing is just the beginning, as far as the Association is concerned. “We are leaders in the state in employment of those with disabilities and those with employment issues,” Brose said. “We tell employers to hire them because they are good employees, no other reason.” And the Association lives what they advocate: more than 60% of its staff have a mental illness and 45% have experienced homelessness.

Brose said they collaborate with faith-based organizations because they are "anti-fearmongers."

“We have long-lasting partnerships with faith-based organizations in Tulsa. A local synagogue brings in five or six homeless people every Tuesday night to bake cookies that are sold around Tulsa. The workers make $10 per hour.”

The next challenge for the Association is to lobby the state Legislature in an effort to create a renewable funding source for affordable housing in the state, perhaps through a real estate transaction fee that creates a pool of money developers can use for such housing.

“We don’t want to lobby just for our organization, we want to be disruptive with our lobbying,” Brose stated. “Politicians talk out of both sides of their mouths, but this is economic development. It is a job driver. It provides economic stimulus. We want to get private developers to the table. We are trying to create a sustainable model. We will continue to go to the community for support, absolutely, but we want to create a sustainable model. There is a whole untapped network of private money for the bricks and mortar side of public housing development. At the same time, we want to challenge the community to expand the definition of diversity. Right now, diversity means race, culture, and ethnicity, but we want it to include felonies and mental health issues. When people look at our clients on a case-by-case basis, they see incredible talent and great employees."

“We want to get the private sector involved. This is not a ‘red state’ or ‘blue state’ issue. It is a purple issue. Nobody likes homelessness in their community.”

This article was originally published to highlight the August 2014 theme of Community and State Systems Integration. Learn more about Housing First at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

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Brian Prioleau
Last Updated: 04/19/2016