In 1969, a pastor stood in front of the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church congregation and asked for donations for a new program that would help low-income families and individuals build their own homes. Ten people stood up and loaned $100 each.
That $1,000, coupled with another $1,000 loan from the church, provided the seed money for Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, an organization that in its nearly 44 years of operation has helped build more than 1,200 homes and 1,500 affordable rental units throughout the Central Coast and Southern California.
Jeanette Duncan, 76, has been there since the beginning as one of the organization’s founding members.
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“When you see someone in their new house, the faces as the family and the children realize it is theirs, it is very rewarding,” said Duncan, who recently retired after 37 years as the nonprofit’s executive director. She was succeeded by John Fowler, who had been the group’s vice president of housing finance.
“I have really big shoes to fill,” Fowler said. “Jeanette leaves behind a really great legacy of a strong organization. We’re going to grow and continue to expand what she had in place.”
Duncan helped found Peoples’ Self-Help in 1970 at the age of 39 after several years of volunteering with charities that aided low-income and struggling families in the North County.
In her time with the organization, Duncan grew Peoples’ Self-Help from a two-person staff with an annual operating budget of about $5,000 to a 100-person staff with an annual operating budget of $10 million.
During that time, Peoples’ Self-Help helped build 1,200 homes in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including major projects in Nipomo, Paso Robles, Guadalupe and Santa Maria.
Duncan seemed to know the personal details of almost every family associated with those projects, Fowler said.
“Before I was hired with Peoples’ Self-Help, she took me out to one of the project sites, and we pulled up in the car, and one of the family’s kids came running up,” Fowler said. “She started asking him, you know, ‘How is your mom?’ ‘How’s school?’ — she remembered everything about this child. We have about 5,000 tenants, and she remembered every single one of them.”
Besides homebuilding, Duncan also expanded the organization’s efforts to include renovating apartment complexes to provide more low-rent opportunities to seniors and low-income individuals.
Her biggest accomplishment, though, is the addition of an after-school college prep program, she said.
“Even when people move into an affordable renting situation, they can come from a background where they didn’t have stable learning environments,” Duncan said. “Our goal (with the after-school program) is to have children graduate high school and go to college.”
More than 100 students have gone through the program so far, Duncan said, including one high school senior who began the program as a 4-year-old, and now has his pick of Ivy League schools. “His goal is to go to Harvard,” Duncan said.
“He’s proof that this program is working,” she added. “We have other students now at Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA — you name it.”
Duncan received numerous awards and recognition during her time with Peoples’ Self-Help, including winning the Women’s Economic Ventures “Trailblazer of the Year” award in 2005 and the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation’s Isabel P. Ruiz Humanitarian Award in 2012. She also has been named a Cuesta College “Woman of Distinction” in 2014 and one of the Pacific Coast Business Times’ “50 Top Women in Business” in 2007.
Although Duncan now will have more time to spend with her daughter and granddaughter, both in New York, she won’t entirely withdraw from her activist lifestyle.
She said she will continue to be involved in low-income housing issues and wants to sit on several state and national boards to stay in contact with her decades-long passion.
Duncan came in contact with thousands of families and individuals in the almost four decades that she steered Peoples’ Self-Help, but one of the strongest memories for her is the moment when those 10 people stood up in church and donated money to help launch the program, she said.
Years later, she approached those individuals offering to pay them back for their loan. Each declined. “They said, ‘No, this was a gift,’” she recalled.
“Had it not been for those individuals reaching into their pockets that’s what really got us going. It says that the community recognizes what we are trying to do, and supports it. That’s wonderful to me. I couldn’t be more proud of those people.”