FREMONT, CA. - Shirley Billiar lived by herself in a mobile home in Sacramento. Janet Pratt, whose husband had recently died, was living alone in a big house. Donna Taylor was stuck in an apartment building where she couldn’t communicate with the other tenants.

All three women faced the loneliness that too often befalls seniors without family or friends close by. And that isolation was compounded by their hearing disabilities: All three are deaf.

Now the women, ranging in age from 69 to 74, inhabit apartments in a close-knit community here designed for deaf seniors. They spend their days using the computer room, taking oil painting classes from a resident artist, doing puzzles, or joining in exercise classes in the community room.

“I’m having a ball,” said Taylor, who moved to the development last year from a local apartment complex where all the other residents were hearing, leaving her with no one to talk to. At Fremont Oak Gardens, “I can chat, I can play cards, I can communicate,” she said through a translator.

The 51-unit development, completed in June 2005, grew out of the efforts of members of the Bay Area Coalition of Deaf Senior Citizens, who managed to persuade Fremont officials that deaf seniors, especially those with limited incomes, sorely needed a community of their own.

Fremont Oak Gardens was selected as the best seniors project this year by Affordable Housing Finance readers.

A mother’s dream

“This was actually my mother’s dream,” said property manager Nancy Hammons, who was raised by a deaf mother, raised one hearing and two deaf children of her brother’s and one hearing-impaired child of her own, and is deaf herself. Her mother was one of the activists who pushed to get the project built.

“This is more than just a job for me,” said the 55-year-old redhead, who moved to this community east of San Francisco from Salem, Ore., and lives onsite. “It’s my community; it’s probably where I’ll end up.”

Although Fremont Oak Gardens also houses about 20 residents who can hear and who speak primarily Chinese, it was designed with deaf tenants in mind. The architects planned the layout with clear sight lines to allow for ease of visual communication, and the builders put in special systems designed to turn information normally communicated audibly into visual cues.

Those touches start at the entrance to the complex, where the intercom system includes text telephone (TTY) technology. Nearby, Hammons' office is equipped with a television monitor that does double duty as a video phone, so that she can sign as well as speak to callers.

The emergency system has flashing strobes as well as alarms, and the doorbell system is connected to a light panel in each apartment that flashes green when someone is at the gate, blue when a visitor is at the door, and yellow when the resident has a phone call. The central courtyard includes an elevator which is glass-walled so that anyone who gets stuck in it can communicate visually to those outside.

“There are no actual enclosed hallways,” said Ryan Chao, executive director of Satellite Housing, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that partnered with the Coalition to develop the $12.8 million project. “It’s all exterior catwalks wrapping around these exterior courtyards.”

In deaf school again

The apartments were also designed with wide-open floorplans between the kitchens and living rooms, as well as shutters between the bedrooms and living rooms that can be closed for privacy or opened to allow communication using sign language or other visual means.

“You take it for granted as a hearing person that you can yell to communicate to your roommate or partner,” said Chao. The shutters and open layout allow deaf residents that same ease of interaction. For some residents, the ease of communication and the close proximity to others has been an adjustment. “My biggest challenge was to be with people all the time again,” said Bernice Christensen, 87.

For Taylor, the sense of community is a welcome change that reminds her of a childhood spent among people with whom she could easily communicate. “I feel like I’m in deaf school again,” she said.

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.

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. Some carry personal messages to loved ones the purchasers wanted to commemorate, others hold words of wisdom or activist messages, and some simply say, “Congratulations.”