Janet Owens

A housing crusader's lifetime of service

From her apartment window at Channing House, housing advocate Janet Owens can look out and point at several buildings she had a direct hand in creating for the area's working poor.

She fondly remembers showing a large family into their new home several years ago.

"It was clear to me they'd been living in cramped, awful conditions before, because their new four-bedroom house seemed huge to them. Each of the kids took turns giving me a tour of the house. They were bursting with pride because they had their own bedrooms. I'll never forget that family," Owens said.

Owens came to California in 1948 to attend graduate school at University of California, Berkeley, after determining that Harvard and Princeton were out of the question.

"At the time, Harvard had cut the number of women applicants to Radcliffe College because it was hoped that more women would join the war effort. I thought of Princeton, but of course they had no women's college. So a friend mentioned UC Berkeley, and the rest is history. I've been in California ever since," Owens said.

Since co-founding the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition in 1967, Owens' civic work has focused on creating and sustaining affordable housing.

"Once my kids were old enough to be somewhat independent, I thought I'd go back to work. I wanted to do something with my degree in International Economics," Owens said.

As an economist, Owens recognized that as the economies of the Peninsula and the Silicon Valley boomed and went "high-tech," the working class and the working poor became displaced to a degree.

"The poor are always hit hardest and hit first when economies change, and the fact is, we can't survive without the poor and the working class. I was trained as an economist, and it was only when I realized what a serious economic problem the housing shortage was that I got interested in the subject," Owens said.

Since 1970, The Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition has been responsible for designing, building, acquiring and refurbishing more than 5,500 below-market-rate housing units in the greater Bay Area. The coalition has been recognized not only for the number of low-cost homes it has created, but for their quality.

"What I found in my work with housing, was that lots of developers interested in creating low-cost housing had great ideals, but no practical knowledge of construction or building management. Affordability is key, but it's just as important that these homes be of some quality so they will last," Owens explained.

Owens worked to address these types of concerns when she co-founded and served as executive director of Non-Profit Housing of Northern California beginning in 1979. Early that year, an Oakland-based group called the National Housing Law Project invited Owens and her housing coalition team members to a state conference on housing.

"The lawyers who made up the Law Project designed the conference so that people who otherwise would never meet could share ideas and form new groups and coalitions. That's exactly what happened," Owens said.

"A few people, myself included, thought of creating an organization that would sponsor education for developers with low-cost housing in mind. We wanted to address not just the price of homes, but all levels of development, from construction to building management. Because again, a group might have the best of intentions when building a low-cost housing development, but have no working knowledge of how to operate and maintain a building full of tenants," Owens explained.

Fresh out of college with a degree in psychology in 1944, Owens knew she wanted to enter a field that would allow her to help people. Her interest in housing matters would come to her by chance years later.

"Several of my friends joined the armed forces, because at the time there was such a great need, and for a while I was tempted. Later, I was so glad that I hadn't enlisted because I found that my women friends in the Army and Navy were only given positions like typists and secretaries. One friend was in charge delivering death-notices to families of soldiers, because the officers thought a woman would be better suited for the job," Owens said.

Owens thought instead she would go to Washington and work for the State Department, because as she put it, "Back then, the government did things to help people."

For a time Owens worked in the commercial policy division at the nation's capital, drafting trade agreements. Most of her superiors in the division were economics professors who had left their universities for government jobs during the war years. This left an impression on Owens, and in 1948 she was off to California to study economics.

Owens left most of her official duties in 1997 when she moved into Palo Alto's Channing House, where she lives today.

"I went on a tour of the National Parks with my friends that year. That, and the business of moving from my three-bedroom house into an apartment was quite enough to keep me occupied," Owens explained.

"There was so much change going on in my life at the time that I thought, 'You're not really helping if you're just going along for the ride.' So I retired," she added.

Today, Owens says she is proud of every unit of affordable housing she has helped develop over the years. "I find all the award business a little overwhelming. I'm proud and I'm pleased of course, but all I've ever tried to do is help the public with what I see are serious problems," Owens said.


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