Tackling Affordable Housing: An Architect’s Perspective

by Jeff Shaw

By Ed Cadavona, Managing Partner, AO

With a growing need and rising costs, building affordable housing continues to be a major challenge in the Golden State, California. The demand for housing exceeds current supply with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) estimating the need for 2.5 million new homes over the next eight years, with approximately 1 million designated for lower-income households. 

The issues are complex, requiring the state, cities, developers, financiers, communities and architects to come together to overcome the deficit of affordable housing for families and the growing senior population. As a result, multifamily developers are pushing to entitle more units than ever before and are looking to leverage all the available tools in the toolbox to bring affordable housing to market. 

At the state level, legislative bills are moving quickly to help ease the bottleneck, but come with their own complexities. Major funding that became available in late 2022 through the second round of the California Housing Accelerator (approximately $1 billion) is now entering the pipeline and is estimated to create 2,755 new affordable units across the state. 

With the goal to alleviate some of the developmental hurdles, California recently enacted legislation like SB 30, SB 35, SB 1818 and AB 2011 and 1763 among others to encourage more housing to be built in an expedited fashion. These government incentives unlock the creation of affordable housing in particular locations, such as downtowns and transit corridors, that take advantage of nearby transportation options, which mitigate the need for cars. And more assembly and state bills are being debated and enacted to help clear the way for housing.

Armed with new legislation and building incentives like zoning variances, density bonuses, fee waivers, reduced parking requirements, expedited permitting, tax breaks and others, developers and architects are finding ways to cut through red tape, unlock density and speed up the process of delivering more affordable housing to the market. 

The key to successful affordable housing lies in the architect’s ability to leverage the various tools available while employing creative design, a disciplined approach, innovative strategies and applied expertise to develop the right solutions for each unique affordable project.     

Leveraging Collaboration and Project Management

Navigating the tumultuous regulatory landscape requires skilled and experienced architects who understand the intricacies of working with multiple stakeholders — including cities, authorities, consultants and communities — and can shepherd developments through the complex entitlement process. High-level collaboration combined with expert coordination and project management is essential to the successful delivery of any development, and even more so for affordable housing. 

One recent example of AO’s work in this space is First Point, a 552-unit affordable housing community in Santa Ana. This Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC) project is a combination of two five-story buildings located on 6.6 acres near the 5 and 55 freeways. 

The development offers a mix of one-, two-, three, and four-bedroom apartments, which are designated for Santa Ana families who earn between 50 percent and 60 percent of the area median income (AMI) — $41,550 to $99,720, based on household size. There are eight interior courtyards and play areas throughout designed for households with young kids. 

Contributing 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor creates a dynamic sidewalk culture for the community. With design oriented toward the public good, the project emulates the income, affordability and cultural needs of its immediate context and makes a significant contribution toward fulfilling the city’s core.

Infill and Adaptive Reuse Opportunities

Making the most of underutilized land and seeking out opportunities to adapt and reimagine existing buildings in urban areas are often viable strategies that can bring affordable housing to communities that need it most. Recently completed, Garden Brook Senior Village, located in the Koreatown neighborhood of Garden Grove, is a great example of an infill, adaptive reuse development that created a “mixed-use” senior village that is contributing to the revitalization of the city. Garden Brook provides affordable housing for seniors age 62 and older earning below 60 percent of AMI. 

The 395-unit building, designed by AO for client AMG, involved the adaptive reuse of an existing, half-built, steel-frame structure that had originally been erected in 2005 but was never completed and had been abandoned for over a decade. The new building now incorporates 13,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space on the ground floor, with an additional 25,000 square feet of community spaces and recreational areas throughout. 

The addition of this infill development will bolster an established senior community, with connected common green spaces and engaging outdoor courtyards, a dog park, and programmed interior amenities like a clubroom, fitness center and senior services center for a holistic senior living experience. 

Completed in 2023, Garden Brook was recognized with a 2019 Gold Nugget Merit Award for Best On-the-Boards Senior Community, SAGE Gold Awards for Best 55+ Affordable Community On-the-Boards 2018 and Best 55+ Affordable Rental Community 2024, NAHB’s Multifamily Pillars of the Industry Awards for Best Multifamily Adaptive Reuse and Best 55+ Housing Award for Affordable Community on the Boards. 

Integrating affordable apartments, Class A office space, and a regional transit hubRancho Bernardo Transit Village is a new, contemporary, mixed-use development set to rise in a burgeoning San Diego suburb. Located on a formerly underutilized parking lot, the boomerang-shaped infill development sits on a sloping, triangular, 1.2-acre site fronting the MTS station and I-15 freeway’s innovative managed lanes system of ramps supporting the mass transit hub. 

The building presents two interconnected uses, comprising 100 affordable apartments and 14,000 square feet of office space in a five-story building. An iconic corner element defines the residential portion, boasting a dramatic sky garden at the top level, while an expansive rooftop deck crowns the modern office facade. Family-oriented units include a mix of well-appointed one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for residents earning 30 to 60 percent of AMI. 

Various common public spaces are envisioned to serve the functional and recreational needs of residents with an inviting computer lab, mail room and clubhouse. A recreation deck with jewel box community center, shaded seating and play area will encourage residential and commercial users to gather outdoors. An open-air green rooftop deck caps the commercial structure, offering workers expansive regional views and respite throughout the day. 

Timeless architecture and affordability ensure that this new transit village will endure well into the future, delivering character and value for the greater community.

Efficiencies of Modular Design

Modular construction is becoming an increasingly smart solution for affordable and market-rate housing. Utilizing modular design and construction can unlock a number of benefits for developers and communities, including improved efficiency, increased speed to market and reduced risk, equating to time and cost savings. 

With modular design, the AO team emphasizes predevelopment planning, scheduling and partnership with manufacturers, making it imperative to have an expert architect early on in the process who knows the rules of the game, and can ensure that the design takes full advantage of the efficiencies that modular building offers.

AO’s most recently completed affordable modular community, Virginia Street Studios in San Jose, California, was erected in just four short weeks (from March 11 to April 8, 2021), with prefabricated units stacked and arranged in quick succession by a construction crane. The affordable seniors housing community sits on the 1.7-acre site of a former tire store, and now features 301 units, 4,660 square feet of ground-level retail space, a fitness studio, BBQ areas, a rooftop deck, community rooms on each level and a private open courtyard.

Currently under construction, El Camino Apartments in San Bruno, California received a boost from SB 1818 and AB 1763, paving the way for a density bonus and streamlined approvals process. The six-story, 136-unit modular development includes below-market-rate apartments within the San Bruno Transit Corridors Specific Plan.

 The design intentionally blends a stark industrial architectural aesthetic with the existing industrial setting, creating a sense of urban revival and regeneration. The modern building will have studios and one-bedroom units and 1,800 square feet of enclosed common spaces and amenities, along with a 3,000-square-foot raised outdoor amenity deck.

Looking ahead, with over 3,500 modular units in production, AO leverages close relationships with key modular manufacturers to push the envelope and explore cutting-edge innovations of prefabrication design and construction. These relationships between the architect and modular manufacturer establish highly efficient coordination and a deep understanding of the work completed in the factories, streamlining the permitting of the modular units at considerable cost savings to the builder. AO’s role is to help developers realize these costs and time savings as they plan for future affordable housing projects to ease the housing crisis.

Designing for Seniors

A great portion of the affordable housing need is for the burgeoning senior population, as medical advances continue to help seniors lead healthier, longer lives. Whether built as conventional or modular construction, AO offers attractive modern interpretations of what affordable seniors housing can and should be, resulting in beautiful and functional homes while still serving a very basic need of key members of our families and communities.

Metro East Senior Park Apartments, a six-story, podium-style complex completed in 2021, was brought about through a $150 million joint venture with AMG, The Pacific Cos., and Jamboree Housing. Located in Santa Ana’s Metro East mixed-use zone, the community provided 419 units, in studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments with sizes ranging from 402 to 821 square feet. 

Reserved for adults age 62 and older, this affordable housing option was designed as an invitation for seniors to embrace an exciting new phase of life, fully engaged in the community and influencing the future. The community boasts 20,000 square feet of open space, which includes a rooftop deck, community garden and five courtyards that are designed to encourage social interactions.  

Ed Cadavona is a managing partner with AO, a relationship-focused, design-driven architectural, interior and planning services firm.

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