Award-Winning Affordable Housing Project in Fillmore Breaks the Mold

Location may be everything when it comes to housing, but aesthetics is a close second. This is doubly true for affordable housing, which is often mired in social stigma. Affordable housing historically had a purposeful, “low budget” look. In other cases, insufficient long-term funding resulted in inadequate or completely nonexistent maintenance.

Consequently, many people are now skeptical of new affordable housing projects. Getting these projects approved by the community requires close collaboration between all stakeholders. The award-winning Mountain View Apartments in Fillmore is an example of that collaboration in action.

The 77-unit community provides affordable homes for over 150 individuals, families, and seniors, as well as people formerly experiencing homelessness. The apartments have a wide range of on-site services, including after-school programs and a community room with Wi-Fi and computer stations, as well as case management and life skill training for residents in need of extra support.

“People who don’t know what Mountain View is walk on the site and have one of two reactions,” said Doug Menges, the executive vice president for developer Many Mansions. “Hey, are any of the condos/townhouses available for sale here? Second: This reminds me of a beach community.”

The apartments opened late last year. Rosa was one of the first tenants. A single mother, Rosa worked hard to stabilize her life and is now the assistant manager at Goodwill in Fillmore. However, she could only afford a studio apartment, and her two older children had to live with their grandparents.

“[I am] grateful to Many Mansions for the opportunity to live in an apartment that is the right size for my family,” Rosa said.

Breaking the stigma and finding the funding

Construction projects are usually governed by two truisms. Construction rarely goes smoothly, and vacant land is vacant for good reasons. In this case, the land was an abandoned orchard surrounded by above-ground utilities. There were no curbs or gutters. There was, however, a large gully, and an eight-foot grade difference from the highway.

Competing demands and laws can also slow down construction. “There are no more easy properties in California,” said Kevin McSweeney, the city’s planning and community development director.

Many Mansions and the city rose to the challenge. The city amended its general plan and changed the site’s zoning from commercial highway to high-density residential. This allowed the developers to build 35 units per acre, making the project financially feasible.

There was also an early disagreement about the building’s façade. “We do a very in-depth review at the very beginning that includes all involved city departments,” McSweeney said. “When you propose something, city staff will respond with a really long letter. You are going to know exactly what we think.”

In this case, Many Mansions proposed a tan, stucco box design typical of inexpensive housing. The city countered with something more unique — the award-winning color and material scheme — which the developers accepted.

“If we want to continue build[ing] affordable units, they have to look nice,” McSweeney said. “The moment we build one that looks like tenement housing in New York or New Jersey, we’ll never be able to build another one.”

For affordable housing, this means that each unit must appear independent and not feel like part of a “complex.” According to McSweeney, this creates a sense of ownership that allows a tenant to say, “That is my unit.” The units should also have porches or balconies that let people “step outside and enjoy [the] fresh air.” Features like this help reduce the social stigma of affordable housing.

After the developers changed the design, the process went smoothly. “The actual permitting process went very quickly once we secured the design,” Menges said. “All throughout the process, they worked hand in hand with us in getting the zoning right. The city was always available, always returned our calls. When we would stop in — which was often — to city hall, they were always [there] to talk to us. There were no surprises.”

The city also helped advertise the apartments, gave Many Mansions a place to interview applicants and conduct outreach, and provided temporary parking for construction workers on city-owned land.

For their part, Many Mansions met with the community often and early, something Menges says is key to getting these projects approved. “The hot topics are always going to revolve around parking, water, trees, followed by traffic,” Menges said. “In terms of Mountain View, we addressed the parking early on because we actually provided more parking than we were required to do. We saw the condition of the street and wanted our residents to walk safely to the elementary school.”

According to both men, residents were thrilled about the project. In the end, the major hurdle was not the land’s unusual slope or the city’s review process. It was funding. It took six years to complete the project. In the end, the housing authority, along with a combination of state funding and tax credits made the project a reality.

“The funding in California is so competitive,” Menges said. “It’s really acquiring the different funding that took the most amount of time.”

Up next for Fillmore: housing for people making just above low-income wages

The city is working on several other notable housing projects and programs. McSweeney is particularly focused on finding developers willing to build housing for people making just above low-income wages — the area with the greatest demand. At this income level, most people do not qualify for subsidized rent but still have trouble paying market-rate rent.

One possible policy change is specific to a four-block neighborhood near city hall. The homes were built before World War II. When the city adopted its zoning ordinance, it identified the neighborhood as a commercial highway. As a result, homeowners could not receive construction loans and many homes fell into disrepair. Due to the size of the lots, it is unlikely those homes will ever become storefronts.

The city plans to change the zoning to high-density residential. “For a homeowner, they probably won’t realize that until two to three years when they try to get a construction loan,” McSweeney said “It will help them immensely and it will help the city.”

A subdivision of 130 condominiums is also under construction and 222 apartments for people making just above low-income wages are in the development pipeline. More moderate-income projects are on the way.

“For Fillmore, that’s a lot,” McSweeney said.

Like any city, Fillmore has its fair share of challenges going forward. Fillmore is the first city outside Los Angeles County and is surrounded by agriculture and forests. Residents like the “slower pace of life,” which means there is a lot of political pressure to keep the region’s character intact.

But there’s also a demand for housing — something McSweeney is confident the city can meet. “We are on target to meet [our housing numbers] … both affordable and moderate, McSweeney said.

Article originally appeared in the  League of California Cities website (Read full story and additional photos)