SAN FRANCISCO - Henry Belton feels at home. One of the original residents at the Plaza Apartments, he can cook what he wants in his kitchen and choose clean clothes to wear from his closet.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Belton, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. After being homeless for 12 years, Belton now has his own apartment and is sober. He even works as a peer counselor at San Francisco General Hospital.

On weekends, he enjoys going to the scenic waterfront, and he is looking forward to the next election after having become a registered voter. “I’m almost in paradise,” he said.

Developed by the Public Initiatives Development Corp., a subsidiary of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA), the 106 studio apartments at the Plaza are made for Belton and others who needed a fresh start.

It has been selected as the best special-needs development by Affordable Housing Finance readers this year.

Many of the Plaza residents were homeless or on the brink of living on the streets. In addition, many suffer from medical, mental, and/or substance-abuse problems.

The Plaza is special because it serves the city’s neediest citizens, said Olson Lee, executive director of the development corporation. Twenty-three of the initial residents moved in directly from the streets and local shelters. An additional 71 residents were referred by health-care and treatment programs.

Belton came to the Plaza from a residential recovery program.

Making housing a health issue

The $22 million Plaza is unique because it brings together the resources of San Francisco’s redevelopment and public health departments.

Underscoring the point that housing is a health issue, the city Department of Public Health (DPH), is providing rent subsidies for 97 units through its Direct Access to Housing program. This equates to roughly $417 a month per unit.

Although the apartments target residents earning no more than 40 percent of the area median income (AMI), the actual income of the population averages less than 20 percent of AMI.

The union of housing and health services goes even further. DPH is providing a full-range of on-site support, including a psychiatrist, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner. It has also contracted with Conard House, Inc., a nonprofit social services agency, to provide case management.

The Plaza is a prime example of a development that embraces the Housing First approach. This strategy says that the best way to end homelessness is to move people into permanent housing as soon as possible and connect them with needed services.

“The Housing First model is making a difference and housing individuals who potentially would be on the streets or in the shelter,” Lee said.

So far, the results have been good, with a large majority of residents staying in their units, according to Lee. He estimated that the turnover has been about 5 percent to 10 percent in the project’s early stages.

“The Plaza is a particularly wonderful example of great design and building quality coupled with really wonderful social programs,” said Marc Trotz, director of housing and urban health at DPH. The project, he said, demonstrates what many people have known for a long time: that chronically homeless people can successfully transition into housing.

The housing subsidy and other commitments by the public health department often make economic sense. Trotz explained that research has shown that some chronically homeless individuals can cost the health system anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year in emergency and other services.

Cutting-edge design

The Plaza is also leading the way when it comes to sustainable design. The nine-story building uses green design and building techniques, and marks a significant improvement to a blighted corner of San Francisco.

Its gritty urban location was pointed out by Mayor Gavin Newsom at the project’s grand opening ceremony. “This is Sixth Street,” he said. “Let’s put it in perspective. It’s magical.”

Designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Paulett Taggart Architects, the project was built on an under-utilized urban infill site. It replaces a single-room occupancy hotel in which 37 units shared 1.5 bathrooms. At the Plaza, each resident has his or her own studio apartment that has a bathroom and kitchenette.

The project’s green design was recently recognized by the American Institute of Architects. In addition to selecting environmentally friendly building materials, developers installed a solar energy system, which they hope will generate about 12 percent of the project’s power needs and save $8,500 or more per year in utility costs. Controlling operating costs will help keep rents low.

The Plaza is serving as an inspiration for other affordable housing developments. Some visitors have been interested in the green building techniques, and others are focused on learning about the delivery of services, Lee said.

Despite the attention that the project has received, he knows more work is ahead. “The real test is not just the development and the first year, but how we sustain the operation of the building over the long haul,” Lee said.

The Plaza was supported by the Enterprise organization through its national Green Communities initiative, a five-year, $555 million program to build more than 8,500 environmentally friendly homes for low-income families. The initiative was launched more than a year ago by Enterprise and the National Resources Defense Council.

The building features retail space on the ground floor, and will have theater and performance space in the basement. These uses will add to the economic revitalization of the neighborhood.

Key project financing included low-income housing tax credits allocated by the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, which 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 a $10.5 million construction loan. The John Stewart Co. is the property manager.