Fremont, Calif.—Even living in a community with one of the largest deaf populations in Northern California, many hearing-impaired residents of this town east of San Francisco felt isolated. So when their friends who were aging started moving into seniors housing developments, they formed the Bay Area Coalition of Deaf Senior Citizens to build a seniors affordable housing community designed especially for the deaf.

The result was Fremont Oak Gardens, where not only can the resident manager communicate in American Sign Language, but the layout of the project itself, as well as each individual unit, facilitates communication between hearing-impaired residents and visitors. Completed in June 2005, the 51-unit development is the first affordable housing facility for deaf seniors in Northern California.

“There are no actual enclosed hallways; it’s all exterior catwalks wrapping around these exterior courtyards,” said Ryan Chao, executive director of Satellite Housing, which partnered with the Coalition to develop the $12.8 million project. “We designed the whole project around visual communication.”

Satellite Housing hired a deaf architect to work on the development, and held a series of workshops with the deaf population to determine what services and design features to incorporate.

“It was very enlightening to work on a project and discover many needs that we would never have even thought about,” said Chan. For instance, he noted, “You take it for granted as a hearing person that you can yell to communicate to your roommate or partner.”

To provide deaf residents with that same ease of communication, units were designed with wide-open floorplans between the kitchens and living rooms, as well as shutters between the bedrooms and living rooms that can be opened to allow deaf residents to easily communicate using sign language or other visual means.

The development’s emergency system has flashing strobes and signal lights for doorbells and alarms, the intercom system between the apartments and the front gates uses teletype technology, and the elevator, which faces a central courtyard, is glass-walled so that anyone stuck in it can communicate visually to those outside.

The project also had a unique financing element: Backers raised about $60,000 in private donations by selling engraved paving stones and tiles which decorate the central courtyard and stairway.

The only hard debt on the development is a $2.7 million loan from the California Housing Finance Agency (CalHFA) made using tax-exempt bond proceeds, which qualified for a 3 percent fixed rate through CalHFA’s special-needs program. About $5 million in equity was provided through both a contribution from the developers and from 4 percent low-income housing tax credits, with Apollo Housing Capital as the syndicator. The city of Fremont provided a $4.4 million soft loan, and the county as well as three neighboring cities also contributed to the project through Community Development Block Grants or soft loans.

Monthly rents range from $394 to $829, and the bulk of the units are targeted to residents earning up to 50 percent or up to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), though five are reserved for tenants earning up to 30 percent of AMI, and six are slated for those with incomes up to 40 percent of AMI.

The development offers supportive services from van transportation to meals-on-wheels to nursing visits, legal assistance, and in-home support services.