SAN FRANCISCO - Buena Vista Terrace accomplishes two important goals—preserving a historic church building and creating 40 affordable apartments for seniors in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

A landmark in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Third Church of Christ Scientist building was built in 1915 but sat abandoned for several years after the congregation moved to a new location.

In a neighborhood where buildable sites are rare, developers eyed the vacant church with thoughts of demolishing the building to make way for market-rate condominiums on the prime site. At the same time, the neighborhood wanted to maintain the historic structure.

Citizens Housing Corp., a local nonprofit affordable housing developer, had a solution—save the beautiful building and turn it into much-needed affordable housing.

This plan would allow the neighborhood to maintain a piece of its history and provide 40 seniors, including several who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, with a safe place to live. The apartments are reserved for residents earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income. Residents pay just 30 percent of their income toward rent, a blessing in a city where monthly market-rate apartment rents average about $2,000.

“The project taught an important lesson: A property that has development limitations may provide an opportunity for affordable housing development,” said James Buckley, president of Citizens Housing. “We would not have been able to acquire the site if the building hadn’t been a historic landmark. The desire of the surrounding community to preserve the building prevented development of the site for market-rate condos during the dot-com boom and provided the opportunity for creative re-use of the site for low-income housing.”

A huge challenge was converting the old Romanesque Revival-style church into new housing. The church exterior, which features terra cotta details set in a brick façade, was preserved, and four stories of studio and one-bedroom apartments were created inside.

Being in San Francisco, the building Housing needed a complete seismic upgrade. The church was an unreinforced masonry building, so the development team essentially built a new building within the old structure. The new building reinforces the exterior walls.

Developers preserved the architecture, even replicating the building’s original stained glass. Decorative medallions were also saved and can be found embellishing the interior walls.

Residents have access to many services, including physical wellness training and mobile medical services. Opened in October 2007, the $13.4 million adaptive-reuse project was financed through three main sources— $7.9 million from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing, $5.1 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sec. 202 program for seniors housing, and $320,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Program through member Silicon Valley Bank. In addition to capital funding, the Sec. 202 program financing allows Citizens Housing to reduce rents to 30 percent of a resident’s income. Early on, Citizens Housing worked with Bank of America to obtain funds to secure the property while waiting for city funds.

The need for the apartments was clear from the start. Approximately 1,500 people picked up applications to live in the project.

Buena Vista Terrace was named best affordable housing deal by the San Francisco Business Times in 2008.