For many years, Joel Testa and his family’s companies have been building housing in the Akron area.
But it wasn’t until recently that Testa found a deeper calling: to also help those without homes.
Testa came to this realization after seeing the struggles of his adopted son’s biological father, who was homeless. He wished there was housing available to help this man and the hundreds like him in the Akron area, but found none.
So, Testa set about filling this void, spearheading the controversial construction of the Commons at Madaline Park I in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The apartment building, which opened last July, caters to the homeless, veterans and the disabled. Construction will begin this month on a second complex next to the first to serve these same populations.
Testa also started the Formerly Homeless Foundation, a nonprofit that provides assistance to the homeless and aims to educate the public about who they are.
“People don’t see the real face of homelessness,” Testa said in a recent interview in a conference room in Northside Lofts, an upscale condominium high-rise he built in downtown Akron. “They see the guy on the street corner, the guy on the sidewalk with the paper bag. The majority of the homeless are women and children. They live in their car or do couch surfing.”
“We need to change the perception of who is homeless and why,” he said.
Testa and his family, who own a group of companies, are among the best-known developers in the area, responsible for housing projects in numerous cities, including Akron, Barberton, Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge. They have perhaps left their biggest impression in downtown Akron with the transformation of the Elizabeth Park public housing into Cascade Village and the $38 million Northside development that includes an upscale apartment high rise, townhouses and a new 10-story Courtyard by Marriott that is currently under construction.
While Testa and his companies continue these lucrative projects, he is also moving forward with his plans to help the less fortunate.
Testa is in the process of trying to raise enough money to add a store at the Commons at Madaline Park I that would provide residents with easy access to basic necessities — many of them don’t drive — as well as the chance for a job. He is raffling off a black 2007 Lamborghini, with the proceeds going to his foundation and Community Support Services, which provide services to the homeless. Part of these funds would be used for the store. (Visit LamboGiveaway.com to enter.)
Testa also has embarked on another somewhat unpopular project to serve another group that he thinks is in need of quality housing — the new refugees in North Hill. He is seeking state tax credits to build a $10 million, 50-unit townhouse development across from Summa St. Thomas Hospital, which has been providing primary health care since the hospital’s emergency room closed, including to the many refugees in the area. Like the Commons at Madaline Park, this proposed new development has met with some resistance from residents in the area, including a Facebook page opposing the plan.
Testa, though, is undeterred. He said this is the favorite part of his job — and what he was meant to do.
“Hands down, the most rewarding thing we do is serving those most in need,” he said.
Testa feels blessed to be able to give back to the community that has provided so much to him and his family.
“I can’t believe I get to do what I do — to create something that changes lives,” he said. “A whole lot of people aren’t as lucky as I am.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.