Low-income housing generally isn’t all that nice; stories like this about single-room occupancy buildings (SROs) with infestations, leaking pipes, and overflowing toilets aren’t uncommon. That’s starting to change, however, now that cities are realizing that quality low-income housing can provide a stepping stone to stability for residents. In San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, the recently completed Richardson Apartments provide formerly homeless residents (many with physical and mental disabilities) with beautiful living spaces and social services.
The SRO, a project of David Baker and Partners Architects, is part of a larger neighborhood redevelopment. After the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, a freeway that ran through the city became structurally unstable and collapsed. Now, decades later, projects like the Richardson Apartments are popping up below the site of the former freeway. The Richardson building was completed in September 2011.
The 120-unit, five-story building is the kind of place that most city-dwellers would love to live in: It features sustainably harvested wood (including redwood and elm), a landscaped courtyard, a green roof, sunshades outside the apartment windows, solar hot water heating, solar panels, intelligent lighting controls, and low-VOC paints. The apartments also have amenities tailored to the population, including abuse-resistant drywall and cabinets, grab bars everywhere, and wheelchair-accessible showers. The building doesn’t have car parking, but it does have parking for bikes—not that tenants would be likely to have a vehicle or even need one in this transit-rich neighborhood.
With an average of 300 square feet per apartment, the living spaces in the building aren’t huge. But "all the things a formerly homeless person would need are right on site," explains Amit Price Patel, the project architect. That includes a counseling center, a medical suite, a community room, and a residents’ lounge. There are also retail spaces on the ground floor: a Vietnamese sandwich shop, a picture frame shop, and most importantly for residents, a bakery and cafe that provides a "paid learning experience" for people who are disabled and homeless or at risk of becoming so.
The apartments are affordable for all who live there—residents pay 30% of their income as rent, up to a maximum of $870. And the building is saving money for the city, too. The 120 apartment residents used $2.4 million in city and medical services in the year before moving in. It’s a cost that is being dramatically cut with the onsite medical clinic.
It’s not easy to get a spot in the Richardson Apartments; tenants are screened for violent tendencies, and if they make the grade, they’re put on a long list. The ones who get in love it. "They’re extremely appreciative and really happy," says Patel. "They feel lucky."
The Richardson Apartments aren’t one of a kind. San Francisco is in the process of developing a similar 120-unit building, and New York City has an array of quality low-income housing.
The situation is still dire for the many homeless and poor city residents who can’t snag a spot in these places, however. There’s still a long way to go.