RCAC team members Alan Nazzaro (second from left), Jennifer Leighty (third from left) and Erika Holzhauer (second from right), alongside stakeholders, meet with Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero (center).

By Elliott Bochstein, Rural Community Assistance Corporation staff writer

When Typhoon Mawar devastated Guam in May 2023, it laid bare a long-simmering crisis for residents in the northern village of Yigo. Subdivisions like Gill Baza, Gill-Breeze, and Zero Down, established in the 1990s to accommodate the island’s expanding Micronesian workforce, suffered from decades of neglected infrastructure and broken promises made by exploitative developers.

Yigo, Guam

Migrant workers from islands within the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands, were drawn to Guam i the 1990s with the promise of better opportunities in employment, education and healthcare. They have since become an indispensable part of the island’s social fabric and hospitality workforce, filling essential jobs at hotels and resorts. Yet, despite their vital contributions to the island’s economy and community life, migrant communities in this U.S. territory often face marginalization and struggle to access basic necessities like safe housing.

These families’ search for a better life led them to subdivisions where basic safety elements are sorely lacking. Residents rely on extension cords haphazardly strung across muddy paths for a precarious electricity supply, while unpaved roads and lacking essential water and wastewater services threaten their health and well-being. Meanwhile, the risk of recurring disease outbreaks   like tuberculosis and cholera remains a constant concern.

“The typhoon didn’t create the lack of infrastructure, substandard living conditions or housing and legal issues that families have been living in for decades,” explained Erika Holzhauer, assistant director of housing programs at Rural Community Assistance Corporation. “Sadly, it seems like it took this disaster to get people to notice.”

RCAC’s Community and Environmental Services, and Community Resilience and Disaster Planning (CRDP) teams are now working to address the disparities Typhoon Mawar exposed. Their goal is to improve housing standards and overall resilience in the affected subdivisions; and they are focusing on solutions that are community-driven, practical and sustainable in the long term.

The damage in Yigo was considerable (photo: Alan Nazzaro)

Desperate straits

“The families who purchased land here in Yigo were left in a very tough spot,” Holzhauer said. “Their homes—hastily built with just plywood, a few nails and a tin roof—are completely unsafe in a typhoon-prone area. The residents wanted to install septic systems, but there isn’t even enough space for the necessary leach fields.”

Gill Baza residents formed the Pacific Islanders group, a nonprofit that successfully sued the developer. However, years of legal battles have not solved the subdivision’s basic infrastructure problems.

The typhoon made a bad situation catastrophic; the portable construction toilets residents had relied on became a horrifying liability during the storm. “Imagine portable toilets flying around, spreading waste in the most vulnerable part of Guam, directly contaminating the aquifer below,” Holzhauer said.

“There are significant legal issues here, and the developers of these subdivisions have been taking advantage of residents,” she added. “The living conditions are even below substandard.”

Zero-Down following the typhoon (photo: Alan Nazzaro)

Disaster brings needed attention

While devastating, the storm was a wake-up call, revealing deep-seated problems in these communities that had been overlooked for years.

RCAC’s Housing team was already addressing these issues with NeighborWorks America, other nonprofits and various community development institutions. When the typhoon struck, RCAC expanded its focus, repurposing an existing NeighborWorks America grant to assess broader disaster impacts. RCAC mobilized its CRDP team to Yigo.

“We were going to do a housing assessment, but we really need to go and do an impact assessment to see where things stand and enlist different government agencies and NGOs into the partnership,” CRDP Program Manager Nazzaro explained.

The CRDP team’s role is to focus on funding while coordinating efforts with a wide range of partners to ensure a well managed response and avoid wasted effort so residents can get the help they need. “Our job isn’t to create another recovery plan,” said Holzhauer. “It’s to identify problems and help fill gaps in the plans that already exist.”

RCAC’s initial visit to Guam in February 2024 was highly productive; the teams met with numerous key stakeholders, including government agencies, utility companies and the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority (GHURA) and Guam Economic Development Administration (GEDA)—and GEDA has proven to be an especially strong partner in facilitating coordination with other agencies within both the local and U.S. federal governments.

RCAC team members also met with representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Guam’s Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The meetings provided clarity on funding eligibility and importantly, RCAC discovered that some infrastructure funding had already been allocated to Gill-Breeze.

Meanwhile, RCAC is exploring other funding channels with GHURA, including using potential Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief.

During discussions with government agencies and community members, concerns emerged that public funds might primarily benefit developers, not residents. To address this, RCAC investigated land ownership in the subdivisions. They discovered that, unlike Gill Breeze and Zero Down, residents own a significant portion of the land in Gill Baza—a promising finding that would prove important to secure funding to improve the subdivision.

Sunset in Guam (photo: Alan Nazzaro)

Navigating legal and property rights

Land ownership in the northern subdivisions is a confusing tangle of unclear agreements and disputed ownership claims, leaving some residents in a legal gray area unable to secure the financial help or loans needed to repair their homes.

“We’re seeing extremely low-income families crammed together, with multiple generations often under one roof,” Holzhauer said. Up to three shacks might occupy one small parcel, contributing to the area’s cramped and neglected housing conditions.

Making matters worse, residents who have been paying for decades could still be evicted if they miss just one payment. This is especially true in Gill-Breeze and Zero-Down. Shockingly, one developer even demanded rent from devastated residents days after the typhoon.

“Some residents think they own their homes outright, but it’s not legally official without a title from the developer,” Nazzaro explained. Homes passed down through families without proper paperwork create another problem, leaving the younger generation to deal with unresolved issues.

The ownership situation is inconsistent, even within the same communities. “In Zero Down, the developer still owns most of the land,” Nazzaro said. “In Gill-Breeze, it’s a mixed bag—some residents have paid off their leases and own their property, while others don’t.”

Sorting out these complex issues often requires legal help. “RCAC is considering adding a legal aid component to our work,” Holzhauer noted. This support could help residents officially secure their property rights and open the door for much-needed improvements.

Nazzaro also emphasized the need to carefully consider the potential consequences of eminent domain, where the government seizes land. While it could help remove uncooperative developers, it also risks displacing the very residents RCAC wants to help.

However, RCAC’s research revealed a promising detail: residents own 98% of Gill Baza. This discovery could enable targeted solutions, such as connecting the subdivision’s families with rehabilitation, repairs and construction loans through government programs like those offered by U.S, Department of Agriculture and the Guam Housing Corporation.

“Gill Baza has the best chance of getting loans for rehabilitation if its houses meet the building standards, and then we can connect them to the utilities,” Holzhauer said. “So, the question is: how do we get the necessary infrastructure in place?”

A multi-use community center for Gill Baza

The RCAC team is also looking at the feasibility of building a multifunctional community facility in Gill Baza, designed to withstand typhoons and serve as both a disaster shelter and a hub for education, job training and events. This would strengthen the subdivision’s resilience and provide a space for the community to gather and grow—both socially and economically.

“Think of it as a community center and disaster shelter rolled into one,” Nazzaro said. “A place for meetings, job training, classes—all the things that build a strong community.”

Nazzaro envisions partnering with local nonprofits as crucial to ensure the center meets the residents’ needs. Preliminary discussions are underway with groups like Todu Guam Foundation for health and social services, and Guam Unique Merchandise & Art, with the aim of delivering essential services and fostering economic development through these collaborations.

However, the community facility project currently lacks funding, as no financial commitments are secured. While RCAC identified potential funding sources, the necessary support to move forward with construction is not final.

Building trust and relationships in the community is crucial to ensure residents embrace and sustain the center, according to Nazzaro. “Our role is to facilitate, not dictate,” he said. “We need the community’s input to identify their real issues and work on solutions that genuinely meet their needs.”

Innovative construction techniques could also help the center withstand future typhoons. Nazzaro noted that precast concrete solutions, similar to those used at nearby military bases, could offer the center long-term durability and safeguard residents during powerful storms.

Building sustainability by strengthening community capacity

RCAC understands these deeply entrenched challenges won’t be fixed overnight. Building trust and collaboration with residents is key to ensuring solutions are truly responsive to community needs and sustainable in the long term.

“We don’t tell the community what they need,” Holzhauer said. “We ask them, and we’ve learned that basic infrastructure is essential. The governor recognizes this, and we may need a task force to finally solve these problems.”

Nazzaro also views the typhoon as a potential catalyst for breaking down the bureaucratic silos that hinder collaboration. He proposes a task force that unites government agencies and nonprofits to build community trust and streamline aid efforts. “RCAC’s approach is to work with and through the communities. We’re here to facilitate partnerships,” he said.

While NeighborWorks America’s support is limited to one year, RCAC is seeking additional funding and preparing a comprehensive report on its work in Yigo. This report will outline key findings, available resources, priority projects and the crucial need for continued community involvement. Should the RCAC team’s direct funding end, this report will empower local organizations and the residents of Gill Baza, Gill-Breeze and Zero-Down to continue advocating for infrastructure and safe, dignified housing.

“Every disaster begins and ends locally,” Nazzaro said. “Even with outside aid, the community itself drives recovery—and it could take years, even decades. Our role is to get these efforts off the ground.”


Also in this issue of Network News:


RCAC trains leaders to expand affordable mortgage access in Indigenous communities
Owning a home represents more than just a marker of stability for many Americans; it’s a crucial step toward financial security and the opportunity to create a lasting legacy for their descendants. However, low-income households and communities often find this dream out of reach due to systemic barriers and a lack of affordable financing options.

Read more


M&J Mobile Home Park
M&J Mobile Home Park, located in Fielding, Box Elder County, Utah, is a very low-income community of about 22 people that has struggled with high arsenic levels and contamination risks in its drinking water in recent years. RCAC began working with M&J in fall 2017, after the Utah Division of Drinking Water issued a “Do Not Use” order due to the system’s dire state.

Read more