2008 NAHB Multifamily Pillars of the Industry Award Winner for Best Affordable Housing Rental Commun
Date: 04.07.2008
Publication: National Real Estate Investor

Because of high housing costs in Northern California’s Bay area, local colleges had trouble attracting and keeping the best teachers and staff members. Qualified people who didn’t already live in the area were often reluctant to relocate there because the cost of housing was prohibitive. And for community colleges, which traditionally have smaller budgets, the problem was magnified.

But instead of focusing on what they didn’t have – affordable housing for faculty and staff – the leadership of San Mateo Community College in San Mateo, Calif., found an answer in what they did have: buildable land. The school district in which the college was located had surplus land – a former overflow parking lot behind the college district’s administration building.

Because that area was surrounded by mandated open space and an established neighborhood of luxury singlefamily homes, the site planning and design required particular sensitivity. The college brought in the architects from KTGY Group in Irvine, Calif., to handle the challenge.

Several vocal neighborhood groups arose in opposition to the plan to build affordable housing “in my backyard.” As a result, the developer – Thompson | Dorfman Partners, Mill Valley, Calif. – and the school district began an outreach campaign to listen to community concerns and address their issues. Their fears were primarily that the housing might be unattractive, and that nearby affordable housing would have a negative impact on the value of their homes.

A series of meetings involving all parties resulted in a design that ensured that the new multifamily community, College Vista, looked every bit as attractive as nearby local market-rate multifamily housing. The district also created operating guidelines that would ensure long-term maintenance and upkeep of the property.

The College Vista community was able to gain neighborhood support, and the 44 units were built on 1.9 acres that overlook San Francisco Bay. Unit sizes range from 735 sq. ft. to 1,218 sq. ft., in order to accommodate both single employees and families.

Because the objective was to provide a financial inducement for top-notch faculty and staff to work at the college, rents were set at 50% below market rate. They range from $775 for the least expensive one-bedroom unit to $1,400 per month for the most expensive three-bedroom unit.

That level provides for coverage of all operating costs, creating a reserve for replacement, and principal and interest on the underlying debt that capitalized all the project costs.

Because it is a publicly owned facility, there is no profit motive and no property tax involved. Additional cost savings were realized by enlisting the college’s interior design students to create interiors for the common areas.

All units were rented quickly by faculty and staff families. In addition to the affordable rents, an additional attraction is that nearly 60% of residents can walk to work, while the rest have short commutes within the college district.

Residents may stay for up to five years at the reduced rental rates, which will enable them to save toward a down payment. In addition, the district offers residents a $75,000 reduced-rate second loan to assist with a future home purchase.

Once the community was built, one of the neighbors from the adjacent area who had initially raised opposition came to the conclusion that “this project improved the quality of housing in our neighborhood.” And for the icing on the cake, the community was named the 2008 NAHB Multifamily Pillars of the Industry Award winner for Best Affordable Rental Community.