A new California law removes regulatory hurdles for construction of affordable, intergenerational housing developments
It took a local city council member’s fierce advocacy and a change in state law, but Emeryville, California officials are now on track to build the state’s first affordable housing development with rooms for both seniors and young people transitioning from foster care.
As planned, the $44 million project will boast a five-story building with 53 units for seniors and 14 for transition-age youth. In this traffic-clogged region, 60 parking spaces will be folded inside a mechanized, vehicle-stacking system. And inside common areas, young people with few adults in their life to anchor them will have neighbors nearby, who have plenty of time for them. Older folks, too, will benefit, living among lonely youth who may be just as in need of companionship.
“Affordable housing is all about advancing and strengthening our communities, and this is an exciting opportunity to develop intergenerational interaction, support, and connections,” Amie Fishman, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California wrote in an email. “Living together means learning together!”
The 4300 San Pablo Avenue project — located in a city of 12,000 people nestled on the San Francisco Bay waterfront between Oakland and Berkeley — was originally proposed as an affordable housing development solely for the elderly. Under previous state law, housing projects designed for seniors and youth have long been barred from accessing tax credits, a regular feature in financing plans for affordable developments.
But as the Emeryville City Council discussed the senior housing development at a January 2019 meeting, Council member John Bauters implored his colleagues to delay inviting proposals from developers. He said additional time was needed so the project could be expanded to include another often overlooked group — young people ages 16 through 24 who are aging out of foster care and face challenges securing housing, jobs and higher education.
Bauters, who experienced homelessness in his youth, noted at the meeting the benefits of young people having “adult figures in their lives who provide mentorship, who have life experience, who are there to be supportive of them.” He added that “we really have the opportunity to do something, I think, really positive for people here. There’s such a need for foster and homeless youth in this county, I just couldn’t pass up my chance to ask.”
The council agreed to delay the process and to try to reshape the proposal in a way that it could still be properly financed. But members cautioned that if the tax credit issue couldn’t be resolved, the project would remain a seniors-only development.
In July 2020, the city council approved designs submitted by San Rafael-based developer EAH Housing.
Bauters then worked with the city’s lobbyist and California state Sen. Josh Becker (D) to write a bill that would expand housing options for young people and allow multiple generations to live in the same housing development. The result was Senate Bill 591, legislation to extend tax credits to such projects.
The bill moved swiftly through both of California’s legislative houses where no opposing votes were cast. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the bill on Sep. 28 as part of a suite of legislation aimed at accelerating construction of affordable housing. The law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2022 — creating a pathway for the Emeryville project and others like it to move forward.
The package of housing bills Newsom signed is part of California’s $10.3 billion plan to spur construction of more than 40,000 housing units for low-income residents.
The investment, while sizable, addresses only a tiny fraction of California’s desperate need — a shortage of between roughly 1 and 1.5 million homes, according to analysis by the nonprofit Embarcadero Institute.
Emeryville Mayor Dianne Martinez has described her city’s project as providing a vital housing option for homeless youth in her region.
According to a federally mandated homeless count, in 2019, 702 transition-age youth were homeless in Alameda County, where Emeryville is located — a designation that includes “unsheltered” homeless, young people sleeping outdoors or in their vehicles, and those who were counted in shelters. More than 80% were counted as unsheltered.
Among homeless transition-age youth and unaccompanied children — a separate category of youth who are homeless without adult guardians present — many reported a history in foster care: 22% of unsheltered youth and 59% of sheltered youth.
In lawmakers’ analysis of the bill, Becker wrote that the Emeryville development would provide not only shelter, but a much-needed sense of community for both seniors and youth. He pointed to research by the National Institute on Aging showing social isolation and loneliness is linked to a host of mental and physical ailments, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and death.
“A growing body of scientific research has linked social isolation and loneliness in seniors to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions and this was before the start of COVID-19 and the shelter in place requirements. Research shows that when seniors move into independent living environments, they lose social and physical connections to the outside world,” Becker wrote. “It is vital that housing developments incorporate active, therapeutic, and social activities to keep seniors engaged and active.”
The intergenerational housing model that includes units for seniors and transition-age youth has been implemented in other states, including in Massachusetts and Oregon where the Treehouse Foundation operates, and in Illinois where Hope Meadows has operated housing on a converted military base since 1994.
According to Treehouse’s website, the organization has partnered with nonprofit housing developer MidPen to develop an intergenerational housing project elsewhere in California’s Bay Area, but few details were provided.
Chad Smalley, Emeryville’s economic development and housing manager, said intergenerational housing projects thrive when services and resources are easily accessible to residents. He said the 4300 San Pablo project will be well-situated; a senior center, public transit, a grocery store and a bakery are within walking distance.
Smalley sees a relatively clear path for the project now that SB 591 has been signed into law. Still, it’s unclear how soon the city can open rooms to new residents until construction permits and other funding have been secured. Construction is expected to last a year and half.
“Like every affordable housing project, it’s not without obstacles,” Smalley said. “Every 100% affordable housing project is competing for money.”
But Smalley said once city funding for the project is set, and the developer obtains construction permits, the project can pursue state funding and tax credits.
EAH Housing, the project’s nonprofit housing developer, already operates several housing developments exclusively for transition-age youth, including the Moonlight Villas in Pacoima and Mid Celis Apartments in San Fernando. Chief Real Estate Development Officer Welton Jordan said next year, under the new California law, more intergenerational housing projects can be developed across California.
“It’s great having this be a legal way to build without having to jump through hoops,” Jordan said.