SAN FRANCISCO -- It was while riding a city bus that Linda Jennings first noticed a beautiful converted church. The stately building would catch her eye each time her bus rumbled down Haight Street. After weeks of passing by the church and its "for rent" sign, she finally inquired about living inside.

Developed by Citizens Housing Corp., Buena Vista Terrace is the latest affordable seniors housing development in the city.

Jennings, 65, wasn't looking for seniors housing. "That was the last thing on my mind," she said. "It represented being old and poor, and I wasn't thinking I was either one of those things."

She was apprehensive about moving in but decided to give it a chance after seeing the building and meeting the staff. She's glad she did. "The quality is impressive," she said. "They kept a 100-year-old building intact. That's something."

The 40-unit development is in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which still boasts signs of the 1960s hippie counterculture that made the area famous.

The building is a 1915 Romanesque Revival landmark built as a Christian Science church. The congregation moved to another location, leaving the grand building behind.

Developers had eyed the vacant church, with thoughts of demolishing the building and creating market-rate condominiums on the prime site. At the same time, the neighborhood wanted a use that would be low key and would maintain the landmark church, said James Buckley, president of Citizens Housing.

His nonprofit organization had another idea: Preserve the building, and turn it into affordable housing. "There are not many opportunities like this in this neighborhood," Buckley said.

Citizens Housing undertook a yearlong process of meeting with neighbors to listen to and address their concerns. By the time the group's proposal went before city officials for approval, there was no opposition. Citizens Housing acquired the property in 2002.

The organization's portfolio includes more than 3,000 units, 90 percent of which is affordable to low-income families and seniors.

Church rescue

The big challenge of developing Buena Vista Terrace was turning the old building into new housing. The exterior of the church, which features terra cotta details set in a brick façade, was carefully preserved, and four stories of studio and one-bedroom apartments were created inside.

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.

The team also reused what it could, including decorative medallions that can now be found embellishing the walls of the building. The original wainscoting was taken down and placed in a new location.

Preservationists were concerned about saving the original window openings. As a result, they were left as is, which means that in some apartments the windows are a little higher, and in others they are a little lower than usual. In others, they sit just right, said Buckley.

In another move, the group replicated the building's original stained glass pattern to keep the look and feel of the church. Parts of the original glass were broken, and it also had to be replaced to meet modern building codes.

The construction was about an 18- month process.

Buena Vista Terrace 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 (HUD), and $320,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco's Affordable Housing Program.

HUD's financing is through the department's Sec. 202 grant program, which helps fund affordable seniors housing. In addition to capital funding, the HUD grant provides ongoing operating subsidies that enable Citizens Housing to reduce rents in the building to just 30 percent of a resident's income. The development serves people who are 62 years and older and who earn less than 50 percent of the area median income.

When the development began taking applications, the line of potential residents went out the door and down the street. Roughly 1,500 applicants expressed interest in living in one of the 40 apartments, a clear sign of the huge need for affordable housing in San Francisco.

Before moving into Buena Vista Terrace, Jennings rented a furnished room with a shared kitchen and bath. It was a place to live in between more permanent housing, she explained.

A resident of San Francisco since 1982, she previously lived in a nice apartment and lived comfortably, but there was a tremendous amount of stress hanging over her due to the high housing costs, she said.

Jennings used to work in foot reflexology, so her income varied depending on the number of clients she would see in a month. She is retired now and enjoys lawn bowling and reading mysteries.

"Housing costs were going up and up, and my income was going down and down," Jennings said. "It is a blessing to have a place that is lovely and that I can afford."