Unlike many people who live in Southern California, Francisco Zepeda isn’t a transplant. An Angeleno through and through, he’s watched his beloved city of Los Angeles change over the last few decades. The Staples Center (now the Crypto.com Arena) helped revive the downtown area.
Public transportation has improved. The tech industry has arrived. But at the same time, spikes in housing costs and homelessness have stretched social safety nets and driven people out of the state.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the 2022 homeless population in LA County totals almost 70,000. That’s more than a 4 percent increase over the 2022 number. The LA County Homeless Initiative says the county “needs to add approximately 499,430 affordable homes to meet the current demand among renter households at or below 50 percent of the Area Median Income.”
Today, Zepeda serves as vice president of construction at SoLa Impact, a unique collection of social impact real estate funds created to address the homelessness and affordable housing crises in and around Los Angeles.
For the homegrown leader, the job is a dream come true. “I’ve seen the unhoused population grow and watched people get priced out of their neighborhoods. You can’t avoid seeing it. Taking on a role here is an amazing opportunity for me to give back to the place where I grew up,” he says.
Zepeda, an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, earned his general contractor’s license in the early 2000s. He served in construction management for Kaiser Permanente for nearly a decade. But until he joined SoLa, he hadn’t encountered an organization with such a meaningful social impact component.
SoLa Impact is bringing affordable housing to the LA area in a unique way. Unlike other developers that rely on grants and public funding, the company is doing it all with private equity.
This approach allows SoLa Impact to build projects faster, because Zepeda and his team aren’t subject to some of the bottlenecks that exist within the bureaucracy of public agencies. While other developers tackle two to four projects at a time, SoLa takes on more than 20; it’s both the largest developer of affordable housing and the largest Section 8 landlord in Los Angeles.
A portfolio of more than 2,000 apartments in Los Angeles is helping SoLa Impact solve the homelessness and affordable housing problems. It’s a commitment Zepeda takes seriously.
“We’re not just building projects; we’re getting people housed. We don’t finish buildings and hand them off; we also manage our properties,” he explains. The strategy allows SoLa to serve unhoused people directly in partnership with 30 agencies that match their clients to the company’s properties.
Sixty percent of SoLa’s residents were previously unhoused, and the company also provides wraparound services for trauma and other underlying issues.
Its projects transform entire neighborhoods. Project Triple Main will bring 87 one-, two-, and three-bedroom low-income units to families and individuals in South Los Angeles.
The building, which replaces a junkyard, features a green rooftop deck with panoramic downtown views. Its location next to a public transit system will help residents get to grocery stores, medical appointments, jobs, and other needs seamlessly.
As VP of construction, Zepeda helps SoLa Impact fund and fulfill its mission by finding new ways to reduce costs. SoLa builds at under $300,000 per unit, which is less than half of the market rate. How? Through standardization, efficiency bulk ordering, and modular construction.
When lumber costs were getting high, Zepeda bought and stored enough material for three buildings and saved over $1 million. The company also works with “mom and pop” contractors and “right-sized” companies that have lower overhead and discounted rates.
A mission of “doing well by doing good” is propelling SoLa Impact forward on the social impact side, where the company is focused not only on housing, but also on economic development, education, and community partnerships.
A five-acre campus known as the Beehive is home to 100,000 square feet of commercial space and 60,000 square feet of courtyards and open space. It features six red-brick warehouses for initiatives like the SoLa Tech and Entrepreneurship Center, where over a thousand young people from predominantly black and brown communities get certified in robotics, coding, and software development every year.
The 20,000-square-foot Tech Center, completed in partnership with Riot Games and Snap, features 30 iMacs, 30 MacBooks, 15 iPads, 30 PCs, Oculus Quest VR headsets, a podcast studio, an entire gaming center, and more. SoLa gives students up to $300,000 in scholarships each year, while also providing professional development, mentoring relationships, and internships.
These projects and community-based initiatives have made SoLa Impact into one of the nation’s biggest minority-led developers, and the future continues to get brighter. The organization has many projects coming online this year and next, including Project MLK, a 70-unit building with ground-floor retail that will improve the Crenshaw neighborhood.
Zepeda is looking forward to meeting residents when it and other facilities open their doors. “Each of the people we serve has a story, and visiting our sites is rewarding because I get to see how we’ve been a part of those stories,” he says. “And that’s what I love about what we’re able to do in our communities.”
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