San Francisco — Many formerly homeless men and women are getting a new start at the recently completed Plaza Apartments. That alone would be accomplishment enough, but the 106-unit development represents much more. The $22 million project is a unique effort that brings together the resources of San Francisco’s redevelopment and public health departments to provide very low income residents with not only shelter but also much-needed services.

The project also serves as a model for green design and marks a significant improvement to a blighted, hardscrabble corner of the city. “This is Sixth Street,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom at the March grand opening. “Let’s put it in perspective. It’s magical.”

Plaza Apartments was developed by the Public Initiatives Development Corp., a subsidiary of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA). SFRA has helped finance numerous affordable housing units, but had not developed a building on its own in years.

City leaders have been pushing the agency to become a direct developer and increase the city’s affordable housing stock. The subsidiary was formed with the idea of building the Plaza in mind.

To make the Plaza a place that delivers more than just shelter, the Department of Public Health (DPH) brought its expertise and resources to the project. In an unusual move, the health agency is providing rent subsidies for 97 units through its Direct Access to Housing (DAH) program. Residents pay about $300 per month, with the DAH program contributing roughly another $450 per apartment.

San Francisco is one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. The fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,227. That means the housing wage, the hourly wage necessary to pay this rent and not spend more than 30% of income on housing, is $23.60, according to the Out of Reach report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Each apartment has a full bathroom, a kitchenette with a sink, a full-size refrigerator, a two-burner stove and a microwave. Apartments also come with a bed, nightstand and dresser.

In addition, the building features space for medical staff and social workers. DPH is providing a full range of on-site support services, including a nurse practitioner and a psychiatrist. Conard House, a nonprofit social services agency, is handling the case management.

“The combination of mental health [services], substance abuse and medical expertise on staff is cutting-edge and needed to do this work well,” said Mark Trotz, director of DPH’s section of housing and urban health.

DPH is involved, he said, because housing is a health issue. “If our charge is to improve health of San Francisco’s indigent population, one of the most important things we can do is stabilize their housing,” Trotz said.

This strategy of getting people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless into permanent housing has become known as “housing first.”

Meet a resident

Henry Belton is one of the residents. “When this idea of providing affordable housing for homeless people came out, I was wishing I could be a tenant,” he said. “Since then the whole thing became a reality.”

Learning that his application had been accepted, he said, was the best news he had heard in years.

The 59-year-old said he comes from a good family and has a good education, but that his life had gotten off track. He was homeless on the streets of San Francisco for 12 years, living in tents and going in and out of shelters.

Belton was in an alcohol-recovery program before moving into his new apartment at the Plaza. He’s staying sober, has a permanent place to live and works as a peer counselor.

He is also proud to note that he is a registered voter. “I feel like a citizen,” Belton said.

Going green

Another goal of the project was to create an environmentally friendly and sustainable building. “Being the developer, we took the opportunity to push the envelope in green design,” said Olson Lee, executive director of the development corporation.

As a result, there’s a long list of environmental and smart-growth features at the Plaza Apartments. To begin with, the nine-story building replaces a blighted two-story hotel, making better use of an underutilized urban infill site. About 75% of the demolition and construction waste was recycled and diverted from landfills.

The development team also sought to improve indoor air quality and energy efficiency, according to Roberto Sheinberg, project architect with Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, which designed the Plaza in association with Paulett Taggart Architects.

To meet that goal, officials carefully selected paints and building materials. The cabinets, for example, are formaldehyde-free. For energy efficiency, a solar system, which officials hope will generate about 12% of the project’s power needs and save about $8,500 or more per year in utility costs, was installed on the roof.

The project was supported by the Enterprise organization through its national Green Communities initiative, launched more than a year ago by Enterprise and the National Resources Defense Council. The program aims to build more than 8,500 environmentally healthy homes for low-income families. Global Green is also involved in the effort.

The Plaza’s opening also comes after Mayor Newsom announced in 2005 that San Francisco would be the first city in the country to adopt green building standards for all of its affordable housing developments. Enterprise has awarded grants totaling $300,000 to five local nonprofit developers to create 600 healthy, sustainable homes.

The financing of the Plaza was straightforward. Low-income housing tax credits provided about $11 million in equity. Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., syndicated the tax credits, and Fannie Mae was the investor. SFRA provided another $11 million through tax-increment funds. Citibank was the other financial partner, providing an approximately $10.5 million construction loan. The John Stewart Co. is the property manager.

Rare family housing opens in S.F.’s Tenderloin

San Francisco — On the front of the recently opened Curran House, there is a pink design that resembles an asterisk mark along with the words, “Incredible but true.”

The phrase is meant to be open to interpretation, but it could stand as an apt description for the building.

Built by the nonprofit Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. (TNDC), Curran House is only the second new affordable family project constructed in the city’s gritty Tenderloin district in the last 10 years.

Most people don’t think of the neighborhood as an area that is home to families, but 3,500 children live in the area, said Diep Do, TNDC’s director of housing development.

The new project aims to help some of those families. Approximately 80 children are among the residents at Curran House, which is named after the late Sister Patrick Curran, who served the city’s poor for many years as executive director of the St. Anthony Foundation.

The 67-unit development celebrated its grand opening in March. Designed by David Baker + Partners, the project has already received a national Residential Architect Design Award for affordable housing. It was also recognized as the San Francisco Business Times’ real estate deal of the year for new affordable housing.

TNDC leaders had their eyes on the site, a former parking lot, for years. They were finally able to purchase it in 2001 and begin making plans to develop housing on the property.

The project features 14 studio, 15 one-bedroom, 14 two-bedroom and 24 three-bedroom apartments. Rents range from about $750 for a studio to $1,150 per month for a three-bedroom apartment. There are 16 Sec. 8 units through the San Francisco Housing Authority and 10 Shelter Plus Care units for formerly homeless families through the San Francisco Human Services Agency.

The project is targeted at families earning no more than 45% of the area median income, which for a family of four is no more than $43,000. It’s meant to be a refuge from the busy streets and commotion that’s just outside its doors. Stepping inside the Curran, residents can see through the lobby to the gardens and a fountain.

“It’s like going to a retreat or spa,” Baker said. The designers also created a rooftop garden with citrus trees and space for residents to grow vegetables.

Multiple layers of financing were assembled for the $24 million project, which includes office space in the basement level.

The San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing provided a $10.2 million deferred loan, and the National Equity Fund provided $10. 8 million in low-income housing tax credit equity. The Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco through member Bank of America (BofA) provided $335,000 in Affordable Housing Program funds. A $9.3 million construction loan and a $2.1 million permanent loan came from BofA and Impact Community Capital, LLC, a community investment consortium of insurance companies. Additional financing was assembled for the building’s office space, which is used by TNDC staff. The organization’s main office is in an adjacent building.

– Donna Kimura