BERKELEY, CA.—This is a story about an affordable housing development that endured a costly legal battle and took nearly eight years to build.
This is about the most recent and one of the most arduous projects that hometown nonprofit Affordable Housing Associates (AHA) has completed in a 14-year history that includes the development of more than 500 units.
This is what Susan Friedland, AHA executive director, said about Sacramento Senior Homes, a 40-unit development for low-income seniors, some of whom were homeless, living in shelters or their cars: “While Sacramento Senior Homes may not have been our most technically challenging project, it was certainly the most exhausting. Of all our projects, it required the most time and resources, not to mention emotional strength, to battle a very organized and well-funded opposition which fought this project every step of the way.”
This is a development that illustrates just how difficult a job affordable housing developers have. AHA had to defend the project against a lengthy and expensive NIMBY lawsuit. Opponents alleged that the city of Berkeley should have prepared an environmental impact report before approving the development, which was replacing a closed clothing store on a busy street. They were essentially challenging Berkeley’s ability to approve infill housing.
This kind of opposition often happens to affordable housing, even in places considered progressive, like Berkeley. The resistance threw a big wrench into an otherwise pretty straightforward deal that met the site’s zoning rules and had its financing in place.
“Sacramento Senior Homes became an extreme version of what happens sometimes when people hear that affordable housing is coming to their neighborhood,” said Kevin Zwick, AHA deputy executive director. “People had this fear about this project not fitting into the neighborhood, or a fear that the project would be ugly. In reality, it’s a beautiful building. It fits into the neighborhood, and the tenants are a positive benefit to the neighborhood.”
Stuck in court
The project found a friend in the Sierra Club, which came to AHA’s defense. Environmental groups don’t often team with developers, but the Sierra Club, which has been campaigning against suburban sprawl, recognized the benefits of the urban infill project and filed an amicus brief on behalf of the development.
This is what Tim Frank, a senior policy adviser for the Sierra Club, said: “Multifamily housing is very efficient in its use of land, energy, and natural resources. In an infill context, it is even more so. We are also interested in assuring that the built environment provides well for peoples’ basic needs. Sacramento Senior Homes provides housing choices that were desperately needed, and does so in a great location for housing generally, but especially for senior housing. It is served by three bus lines, is within walking distance of BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and is close to a whole array of shopping and services and even a library branch. Obviously, we like the fact that they can walk, but for a lot of seniors who may not any longer be able to drive, that represents freedom.”
As little as six years ago, Frank would have been hard-pressed to find other examples of the group taking such a stand for development. “Now, I can point to Club-supported projects in every state of the union in just about every kind of context, from rural towns to suburbs to big metropolitan cities,” he said. “But this is still a relatively new activity for us. Our ambition is to do a lot more.”
This is a project that was challenged in the local superior court, which ruled in favor of the developers. Opponents, however, were not satisfied and took the matter to the California Court of Appeal, which also sided with AHA and the city of Berkeley in 2004, clearing the way for Sacramento Senior Homes to be built.
The ruling carries larger implications. The court decision was a published opinion, meaning that it can be used by other affordable housing developers when battling similar opposition, according to attorney Ellen Garber of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, who represented AHA.
This is what she said: “Just because people who live near a proposed project don’t like the way it looks, that’s not a significant impact under the California Environmental Quality Act.”
A costly delay
This is roughly how much all of the delays associated with the NIMBY lawsuit added to the project costs: $2 million. This happens when projects get delayed, and construction costs rise and rise, creating a new threat to the development. “It was the worst time to be delayed,” remembered Zwick.
AHA worked with its multiple financing partners to keep the project alive by extending loans and increasing funding. The nonprofit covered the gap by requesting additional funding from the city, increasing the second mortgage based on the Sec. 8 rents, and working with its architects and contractors to find savings.
This is what AHA said to themselves to get through: “We knew this development would be good for the community,” Zwick said. “We knew that in the end the community would benefit from this project, and we knew we had to be the optimists and say, ‘We will work for as long as it takes to become a reality.’”
This is how much Sacramento Senior Homes cost overall: $12 million, assembled from a half-dozen sources. Putting together a jigsaw puzzle of different funding sources is what affordable housing developers have to do.
The financing included 4 percent low-income housing tax credits and tax-exempt bonds from the state of California. Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., syndicated the credits, which provided about $3.8 million in equity. Tax-exempt bonds generated about $2.7 million. U.S. Bank was the construction and permanent lender. Other financing came from the city of Berkeley Housing Trust Fund, the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Program, Alameda County, and the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
This is a project located on an interesting corner of town. The building wraps around a busy street on one side and a quiet residential road on another. Architect Kathryn McCamant’s solution was to have retail space on the ground floor along the side of the building that fronts the busy street. Around the corner, the building is designed with a large porch and a gate to fit into the residential neighborhood.
McCamant, an expert in cohousing, wanted to promote a sense of community at the development, so she designed sitting areas near the elevator on each floor for residents to meet and talk.
This is a green project, meaning it is environmentally friendly, using photovoltaic panels and a high-efficiency water heating system. The solar panels are expected to provide about 60 percent to 70 percent of the power needs for the common areas.
This is a development that shows that affordable housing builders need a stubborn streak as much as anything else. Listen to Friedland: “Building affordable housing requires long-term vision—the ability to constantly move flexibly with an ever-changing array of issues. Mostly, it takes fortitude—the ability to see beyond the daily challenges and struggles and to see that moment when, at long last, a low-income person or family moves into their home. It is this moment that makes the years of hard work and constant challenges completely worthwhile.”
This is a sign of how much the development is needed in the community: There were more than 200 qualified applicants for 40 units.
The residents have annual incomes ranging from $9,900 to $35,000. They will not pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent because of the housing vouchers. Two units are set aside for seniors with HIV/AIDS.
This project’s long-term affordability means that residents will not have to worry about the whims of the real estate market, said Mayor Tom Bates.
This is Berkeley, a city famous for free speech, so this is what else he said: “I would like a month of Iraq [War] funding to fund seniors housing.”
If the development of Sacramento Senior Homes was the first chapter of the building’s story, then a new one has begun. For many, the story begins here.
This is how much it means to some of the residents who have moved into the new apartments.
“This place is a blessing,” said resident Rosie Kreidler, who gently but firmly cautions young people, “Don’t ever think you will never be in a situation where you will need a hand.”
This is a woman who knows. Kreidler is a former Olympian. She competed in the hurdles in the 1964 Olympics. “I was generous,” she said, with a slight laugh. “I looked back to see where everyone was, and they were passing me.”
The hurdles have become symbolic to her. “God must have said, ‘Rosie, you are going to be going over a lot of hurdles.’”
The local newspapers have reported that she is the aunt of baseball star Barry Bonds. She was a nurse, but her life changed about four years ago when a vehicle she was in was hit by a huge truck. Kreidler said her neck and ribs were broken, and she eventually spent her savings as she recovered. She lived in a shelter and her car before moving into Sacramento Senior Homes.
This is what she said about her new home: “What this place means to me is a lifeline. I want to thank everyone who put a nail in here.”
This is one more affordable housing development.