SAN FRANCISCO—A historic church that has been part of the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for 93 years has been given back its grandeur, if not its original use.

Now called Buena Vista Terrace, the Third Church of Christ Scientist building has been transformed into 40 affordable apartments for seniors, including several who were homeless or at the risk of homelessness.

“With its many historic neighborhoods, San Francisco has few locations for new housing,” says James Buckley, president of Citizens Housing Corp., the local nonprofit affordable housing developer behind the project. “Buena Vista Terrace is unique because it converted a problem property—a beautiful, landmark church, vacant for years as developers sought to demolish it for new condos—into new apartments for very low income seniors.”

The group's efforts are being rewarded with the AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE Readers' Choice Award for best historic rehab project in the United States.

Built in 1915, the church was abandoned after its congregation moved to a new location. That left some developers eager to knock down the building to make way for pricey condominiums. At the same time, the neighborhood wanted to maintain a piece of its history.

Citizens Housing offered a solution: Save the building, but convert it into affordable housing.

The innovative plan won over both community members and city leaders, who gave the nonprofit group their blessing to move forward on converting the old Romanesque Revival-style church into apartments.

“Buena Vista Terrace is a fantastic preservation and reuse of a historic property,” says Doug Shoemaker, director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing. “It shows that green building is not just about solar panels, but reusing and reinterpreting our architectural resources.”

Developers carefully maintained the building's architectural details, so minimal changes have been made to the stately brick exterior. In one move, the original stained glass was replicated.

Due to its location in San Francisco, the building needed a major seismic upgrade. The church was an unreinforced masonry building, so the development team essentially built a new building within the original structure. The new building reinforces the exterior walls.

“Reuse of the historic building offered the opportunity to create more interesting unit designs and contributed to Citizens Housing's goals of sustainable development by reducing the amount of material entering the city's waste stream,” according to Buckley.

The results are impressive. Opened in October 2007, the apartments are home to residents who are 62 years of age and older and who earn no more than 50 percent of the area median income. They pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.

The $13.4 million 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. Early on, Citizens Housing worked with Bank of America to obtain funds to secure the property while waiting for city funds.

In a sign of how much demand exists for affordable housing in the city, approximately 1,500 people obtained applications to live at Buena Vista Terrace.