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In North County, affordable housing turns green

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Two North County affordable housing projects for 2007 are not only accessible to lower income individuals - they are environmentally friendly, too.

One big project primarily noted for its green building ranking must also be highlighted for its affordable housing component. Black Mountain Ranch's Del Sur earned a difficult-to-achieve LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council on its measurement standard for "greenness." Nearly a fifth of the roughly 3,000 housing units at Black Mountain Ranch's Del Sur will be for affordable housing. The units will be available to those earning 60 percent of the county's median income figure, which currently stands at about $65,000 for a family of four.

Another area project is La Mision Village, managed by National CORE, which is an 80-unit multifamily rental housing project. Libby Lakes Village, managed by Habitat for Humanity, is another. Both projects are in Oceanside. Another notable building is Cassia Heights in Carlsbad, which is being developed by Affirmed Housing Group, a local nonprofit.

Perhaps one of the most talked-about projects in the region is one that doubles as both environment- and pocketbook-friendly. Solara is an affordable project underway in Poway. And it's also 100 percent green. It hired as consultants Global Green USA, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit. The company helped guide Community Housing Works with the project, which incorporates green building practices like photovolataics, solely drought-tolerant plants, no lawn, no plastics or chemicals in the cabinetry or paint, tankless water heaters and double insulation. It's also got community amenities like a tot lot and garden with interactive art.

The property is comprised of 56 units that rent on a sliding scale. A certain portion of units will be rented at 30 percent of the area median, a certain number at 40 percent and the remaining at 60 percent. In general, Community Housing Works tends to rent on average at 45 percent -- about $14,000 to $19,000 -- of the area median income (AMI). Rents typically fall about 15 percent to 25 percent below market rate.

But the most noteworthy feature about Solara is that there are no energy costs. Solar power handles it all. It is affordable housing that's green built, too. Leaders are calling it the first of its kind in the state, and possibly even in the nation.

Kim Russell-Shaw, executive director for nonprofit developer The Association For Community Housing Solutions (TACHS), references Community Housing Works, and especially its Solara project, as the ideal model she wants her organization to follow for blending eco-friendly design with affordable housing.

"Solara is such a perfect mix of affordable housing and green building too," Russell-Shaw said. "Green building adds a few more layers to the development process, but I don't necessarily see it as a barrier; I think it's the right way to go."

While going green for affordable housing may be getting easier, obtaining the other kind of green, as in funding, remains a challenge. Financing, of course, is always at the forefront of consideration in getting an affordable housing project off the ground. As Elizabeth Morris, president and CEO for the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) put it, with these projects you can't just go to the bank and get a loan.

"It's hard enough to build new private rentals that you can sustain with rent," Morris pointed out. "Not only are we trying to do what few in the marketplace can do, but we are also asking that the rents be below market."

Morris explained further that because affordable housing options with lower rents cannot generate enough revenue to carry much debt, it's necessary to combine various sources of funding.

Ken Sauder, president of Wakeland Housing & Development Corp., a nonprofit local developer, agreed that financing often requires a creative approach. Often with affordable housing, a project must obtain three to five sources of funding to make it work, he said. Wakeland often works with SDHC, for instance, to obtain the gap financing money to keep a project accessible for low-income families.

Russell-Shaw elaborated on this point further. She said the maximum income level for renters of TACHS affordable housing properties as 50 percent of AMI, but that most of the tenants actually earn only 30 percent to 35 percent of AMI. Her team in turn often works to secure a federally funded rental subsidy to bring rents close to fair market value, as low-income rents themselves will not sustain operating costs. While all units have the same cap amount, Russell-Shaw said, each unit has a different rent structure such that one tenant may pay $200 while another pays twice that.

More professions may fall under the income criteria for affordable housing eligibility than many people may realize. As Sauder pointed out, most of Wakeland's rents are 20 percent or more below market value, but most of his residents are actually working families, including professions like schoolteachers, nurses and journalists. Sauder sees affordable housing options as a benefit for local business in that employees can afford to live where they work, thus increasing long-term employee commitment.

"We need to think of the affordable housing bigger picture," Sauder says. "There's a big part of the population that is affected, especially in San Diego, where housing is so expensive."

Morris agreed that affordable housing is also a work force housing issue.

"San Diego is a high cost area, as are most coastal cities, but income is not as high as other places," she said. "For instance, Dallas has about the same income structure as San Diego, but housing prices are half of what they are here. This puts a lot of pressure on the work force here, and for the economy in San Diego to survive, we need to be able to work where we live.

"As housing prices go up, it's not just low income residents that have trouble securing housing -- it's an issue for the bulk of the work force these days."

Blackford is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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