Green Machine: Sustainable development leader helps farmworker and low-income families find a place to call home

Vanessa Guerra
As a project manager for Mutual Housing California, Vanessa Guerra is behind some of the region’s most groundbreaking “green” housing developments. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Vanessa Guerra knows what it’s like to grow up in a dusty small town where a working bathtub is a luxury, where neighbors move in and out with the seasons, and where utility bills pile up on cash-strapped families like tumbleweeds along California Route 16.

That made it all the more meaningful to her when, in 2015, more than 60 Woodland families moved into a development project that she managed: Mutual Housing at Spring Lake, the first zero-net energy, multifamily development in the nation for migrant farmworkers.

The landmark project established a new standard for “green” construction projects aimed at driving down energy costs for low-income families throughout the region.

“Most of these families that work in farm labor, they’re working in harsh conditions,” says Guerra, a project manager for Mutual Housing California. “So to be able to come into a home that’s healthy, that provides clean air quality, that is built with materials that are not putting out volatile organic compounds … it’s even more of a benefit.”

Since graduating from Sacramento State in 2008 with a bachelor’s in engineering-construction management, Guerra has leveraged her education and personal experiences into some of the region’s most groundbreaking projects, where affordable housing and green construction go hand in hand.

When Mutual Housing at Spring Lake opened, it made headlines because it provided permanent housing for migrant families who otherwise would be forced to move during certain seasons. But it also was a springboard for future sustainable development projects that feature an integrated solar voltaic panel system, LED lighting, electric heat pumps, and additional features that all but eliminate energy costs for residents, driving down the cost of living for families for whom every dollar counts.

“That’s a big deal as to why we’re doing this,” Guerra says, “because in the end, they’re the ones who are able to save money by having these low utility bills.”

Aerial view of Mutual Housing at Spring Lake
Mutual Housing at Spring Lake is the first zero-net energy rental housing development in the nation. (Mutual Housing California/Josh Sunseri)

Over the past year, Guerra parlayed her success into a number of similar projects: She headed an affordable housing development in South Sacramento, major rehabilitation projects in Foothill Farms and Stockton, and Phase 2 of Mutual Housing at Spring Lake, where her team is adding 40 units on the remaining parcel so that more than 100 farmworker families can have a permanent home. Guerra also serves on the board of the California Coalition for Rural Housing.

Mutual Housing at Spring Lake is the first zero-net energy rental housing development in the nation. The project is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified and ENERGY STAR-certified, and was the winner of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Housing Innovation Award.

Guerra grew up in Esparto, Calif., just 17 miles down the road from where Mutual Housing at Spring Lake stands today. Her brother is Eric Guerra, who serves as District 6 City Council member in Sacramento.

“The fact that I was able to serve a population that I came from … it’s just a huge success for me personally,” Guerra says. “It’s a huge achievement for me because I knew the struggles that those residents were going through; I knew what it was like to grow up in substandard housing.”

Like nearly all their neighbors, Guerra’s family worked in the fields. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Sacramento State, initially as a biology major. She quickly found her way into civil engineering when modern development’s “green revolution” was in full effect.

“Some of my colleagues were already pursuing accreditations through the LEED program, and so it was something new to us, but we saw that there was a future in that.”

Ultimately she decided that she wanted to work for a developer and focus on providing affordable housing for low-income families. As a senior, she interned with Mutual Housing California, which hired her as a project manager immediately after graduation.

“The fact that I learned all of this construction and project management background through my degree really gave me a leg up in development,” she says.

And thanks to Guerra, more Central Valley families have a place to call home.

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Author: John Blomster

John Blomster is a copywriter for the Office of Public Affairs & Advocacy at California State University, Sacramento. He is one of the main writers for the Made at Sac State campaign, a lifelong Sacramentan, and is passionate about all things Sacramento. John is also an avid musician who has been active in the local music scene for over a decade.

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