Coming Full Circle

We’ve all heard (and used) the expression “It’s payback time.” Here’s a person who every working day — and in a positive way — lives those words. Laura Levine is vice president and chief operating officer of Northbay Family Homes, a Novato nonprofit dedicated to helping low- and moderate-income families find housing throughout the Bay Area.

Ten years ago, Levine, now 40, was fortunate to find the help she now provides for others.

“In 1999, I was a single mom with five boys and people were reluctant to rent their home to us,” says Levine. “I had doors slammed in my face and phones suddenly go dead.”

You should see Levine now. In heels and skirt, she’s dressed for success; her blond hair is shoulder length, her smile is radiant; her second-floor office has a courtyard view, and interviews are conducted in her firm’s glass-walled conference room. Over a recent three-year period, Levine’s Northbay Family Homes claims to have helped 870 working people into homes they now own — and placed another nearly 300 low- and moderate-income families in new and attractive rental units.

“I love what I’m doing,” says Levine, trying unsuccessfully to suppress one of her frequent smiles. “I have a great job and I’m a fully participating member of my community.”

Life was not always this way for Levine. Adopted, never knowing her birth parents and only having a close relationship with her adoptive mom, Levine married at 16 and had her first son at 17. “We moved around the Bay Area a lot, always struggling,” she says, “but pregnant with my fifth child I knew it was time for me to start out on my own.” Levine will only say that her husband, the father of her boys, met with “a tragic situation” and “is no longer with us.” She clearly remembers wanting to live in Marin, yet being told repeatedly that it was way too expensive for a person in her situation. Undaunted, Levine looked at Marin rentals.

After being interviewed by a real estate agent, she heard that she was the top candidate for a home she and the boys deemed “perfect.” Once word got out that Levine had five boys, though, that was the end of the deal. Heartbroken, Levine turned to Fair Housing of Marin, which helped her file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. “The state’s criteria is that two people to a bedroom plus one person is the norm,” says Caroline Peattie, the Fair Housing of Marin counselor who handled Levine’s case. “And Laura was only looking at three-bedroom homes that were being offered for rent.”

After prevailing at her hearing (Levine donated 30 percent of her settlement to Fair Housing of Marin), the Levines moved in and never looked back. “My first job was selling appliances at Sears,” she says. “It paid $6.50 an hour, but one day Frank Howard Allen bought 24 computers from me and I got a nice bonus.” Looking back on those years, Levine says, “Whoever said ‘It takes a village’ sure got it right; the whole town of Novato was my village. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

On her honor roll of those who helped the family survive are Jeanne Larraine, the secretary at Pleasant Valley YMCA Day Care; Art and Sandie McClary of Miss Sandie’s Preschool; the Rev. Philip Rountree of St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church; and the Novato Human Needs Center. “I could never ever forget any of them,” Levine emotionally states. “They were all so great.” With no hesitation, she also talks of being on food stamps, welfare and Medicaid, and spending years “cleaning up my credit.”

“Now when people come to me and say they just can’t do it,” Levine says, “I tell them, ‘Oh yes you can.’” Her advice includes finding good mentors, never failing to call for help and, most important, never giving up. She tells those who hope to purchase workforce housing that “filling out all the forms and completing the interviews will, at least, take the energy of a part-time job.” In addition to her role as vice president and COO of Northbay Family Homes, Levine is a licensed real estate broker, founded Employers Empowering Homeownership, and serves on the board of directors of Fair Housing of Marin.

Levine’s oldest boy is now 23, the youngest 14. “They’re doing fine, just great,” she says. “Except for the oldest two, we’re together in the house that I own. It’s near their schools and work. I’m really lucky, extremely fortunate.”