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Noteworthy projects mark South County's affordable housing growth

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Las Serenas, at the border of National City and San Diego, is one of the key projects to mark South County's affordable housing expansion.

Developed by local nonprofit affordable housing developer Community HousingWorks, the project transformed once dilapidated spaces into visually pleasing homes in an acquisition rehabilitation project noted for its success. Community HousingWorks remodeled two lots and joined them together to create 108 units for very low-income families. The project also includes a large multipurpose room and allows for after-school tutoring, a big plus for this demographic.

"This really helped turn around these properties," said Elizabeth Morris, president and CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), of Las Serenas. SDHC contributed via a $6.1 million loan plus $9 million of tax-exempt bond financing.

The Del Sol Apartments complex in San Ysidro is being developed by the nonprofit Wakeland Housing & Development Corp., with funding from Washington Mutual (NYSE: WM), Low Income Investment Fund and SDHC bonds and loans of $12 million and $4.1 million, respectively. This acquisition rehabilitation project will incorporate landscape improvements, upgrades to the 90 units and a community center.

Ken Sauder, president of Wakeland HDC, describes his organization as having a very narrow focus -- to develop and produce affordable housing.

"We'll do it by ourselves, with others, whatever it takes to get it done," he said. "We also have strong asset management to make sure funds are being managed properly."

Sauder also talked about staying involved even past project completion, for maintenance and to provide resident services such as after-school programs for students, business centers for things like resume work and computer classes.

Another San Ysidro acquisition rehabilitation project is Villa Nueva, one of the largest affordable housing projects in the greater San Diego area. The 398-unit complex already housed affordable units, but was close to being sold by the owners for market-value rentals. With the help of $40 million in bonds from SDHC and other funding, social services agency Casa Familiar, chosen to manage the project, was able to orchestrate the acquisition and keep it in the affordable housing arena. Now the 30-year-old buildings will be modernized and refurbished, with green elements like solar power being incorporated into the plans. If funding is approved as planned, construction could begin as early as September.

Sauder is excited about green building being a facet of affordable housing construction. But if just getting an affordable housing project off the ground can provide such challenges, why take the extra step to go green?

"As an organization, we simply see green as being the way to go. Yes, it's popular and in vogue right now, but we also see that it makes a whole lot of sense. We're not going to solve global warming, but we feel it's a small thing we can do," Sauder said. "And number two, it's a real benefit to the residents. They need to pay less for utilities and so it's kind of a win-win for everybody."

While it may cost more at the onset, it saves longer term, he said.

Doris Payne-Camp, director of Policy and Communications for the San Diego Housing Federation, agreed.

"Because our residents are low-income, we are looking at ways to save cost," Payne-Camp said. "In some of our properties, the individual electric meters run backwards -- we are putting power back into the electrical grid instead of taking energy out."

Indeed, affordable housing developers are taking note of how eco-consciousness can also mean much-needed financial savings for those on the lower end of the salary scale. This kind of awareness seems to be complemented by a greater acceptance of affordable housing among the general population.

Kim Russell-Shaw, who has been president and CEO of nonprofit developer The Association For Community Housing Solutions (TACHS) for more than six years, said that while the challenge of procuring land for affordable housing developments has become greater during her tenure, she's seen awareness of the issue increase as well.

"What I've seen is that it's becoming more and more challenging in that there is less land available," she said. "But for the first time it's becoming more of a public issue; we're seeing more stories being written and there's more public awareness now."

Blackford is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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