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Going national: Vet’s group expanding its focus

By Staff | Jan 15, 2016

When Ralph Santillo sees a need among military veterans, he tries to fill it.

The president and founder of Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation in Cape Coral has accomplished that among local veterans through his foundation and making the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library become reality. Now he’s expanding into dedicated housing for veterans on a national scale with the formation of the Patriots Housing Foundation.

“I’ve thought about getting into housing for vets for awhile now,” said Santillo. “I see a need for it and not just on the local level. About eight months ago I started the project by partnering with an investment group and a real estate management company that has been doing this for a long time. Yes, it’s a big undertaking, but I think we are ready for it.”

The management and investment groups find and buy under-performing properties, put them back into condition to lease them out. They hold them for five to 10 years then sell them. Patriots Housing Foundation currently has identified three properties in three cities – Jacksonville and Pensacola in Florida and Atlanta. They are all located near military bases.

“We have an agreement to purchase 1,356 units at a cost of $42 million,” said Santillo. “We had $27 million in place, so we had to raise $16 million, which we are still doing, to seal the deal. We hope to have the money in place and close on the three properties in February. The investors we’ve found all like helping veterans.”

His primary mission is to provide safe, dignified rental housing for the at-risk veteran, help them find jobs, get them counseling and medical services through the VA.

“We want to find and train counselors to serve as veterans service officers and work with the vets in an office at each property,” Santillo said. “We want to put six veterans in those jobs at the properties as the counselors. We hope to fill all the vacancies with veterans, some of which are homeless or close to being homeless.”

Santillo added that the management group is looking at more than 400 properties.

“Our goal is to have 10,000 units by the end of 2016,” he said. “Homelessness among veterans is staggering all over the nation.”

Most of the 1,356 units already are occupied, some by veterans. Santillo hopes to put veterans in there as vacancies come open. Eventually, about one-third of the units will be designated for vets.

Next, Santillo is looking to do something in partnership with the city of Cape Coral.

“We want to get property here in the Cape and I think we can have something in place with the city in about 60 days,” Santillo said. “We have a good working relationship with the city and they want to be known as a veterans friendly place.”

Santillo said Federal programs are inadequate for helping at-risk veterans. One housing program requires someone to be homeless for a year before getting aid. For veterans who are almost homeless it’s even worse.

“What kind of program is that?” he said. “Telling someone to go live under an overpass for a year then call us back? Our program is a stop gap measure to provide housing to those who need it tonight.”

Eventually, the Patriots Housing Foundation wants to have a place for veterans who need assisted living.

“It would go from those who need no assistance to some assistance, and from a lot of assistance to, you know, gone,” Santillo said.

“I’m really excited about this project, but people say we are biting off more than we can chew. Of course, we were told the same thing when we started the foundation and museum,” he said.