Developers hurdled many obstacles before they reached the February 2005 opening of the 57-unit Oak Creek Senior Villas on nearly two acres of once-blighted property in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The development team endured approval and construction setbacks and had trouble securing the money needed to bring affordable senior housing to the site. But when the doors finally opened after five years of dreaming, three years of planning, and 18 months of building, everyone from the county to local housing and financial officials said it was worth the decade-long headache to at last bring lower-cost apartments to an area handcuffed by slow-growth laws and filled with senior citizens on fixed incomes.

A Long Quest

SERIOUS ACCOMPLISHMENT: Oak Creek Senior Villas finally opened in early 2005.
SERIOUS ACCOMPLISHMENT: Oak Creek Senior Villas finally opened in early 2005.

For a decade, the city of Ventura had pinpointed an abandoned Montessori school popular with vagrants as a potential redevelopment site that could provide some much-needed affordable housing, says Arlene Adlin, development director for the County of Ventura Housing Authority. But the city's plans never seemed to go any further. “For 10 years, the city has been trying to get together funding ... but everything fell through,” Adlin says.

But in 2001, the city finally put out a request for proposals on the site. It selected Long Beach-based Urban Pacific Builders to develop the project, intended to house seniors who make no more than 60 percent of the area's median income, or about $35,000.

“Affordable senior housing is vital in Ventura County,” Adlin says. “We were filled from the day we opened.” Oak Creek residents pay $930 per month for a one-bedroom apartment or $1,184 for the two-bedroom units, she added.

Driven to Succeed

Despite the obvious demand for apartments at the now-completed Oak Creek, the property was a tough one to make happen. “I could have done five market-rate projects with the time and energy I spent on Oak Creek,” says Scott Choppin, managing partner with Urban Pacific Builders.

But Choppin says he felt driven to provide the project to an area starved for affordable housing. Among the pressures that make moderately priced projects difficult to do: a Ventura County law called Save Our Agricultural Resources, which bans greenfield development without a vote of the entire county and therefore limits the land available for development. “It is a very tough development environment,” Choppin says. “SOAR puts three-fourths of the developable land out of the equation.”

But once he had the land secured, Choppin focused on financing, which proved to be its own challenge. He first tried to secure funding through tax credits, but found the project's location was a problem: Because Oak Creek wasn't located in an urban area, the property wasn't considered geographically desirable enough to succeed in the highly competitive tax-credit arena. So Choppin then had to change to tax-exempt bonds to get started on construction.

Ultimately, the city's redevelopment agency provided a $1.2 million land loan and another $1.25 million in soft money, Choppin says. He secured another $1.3 million in state and federal housing money. But it still wasn't enough.

For the rest, Choppin went to an old friend: Simpson Housing Solutions of Long Beach, Calif.

Fast Friends

Choppin, who once worked for Simpson Housing Solutions, contacted his former boss: Tom Erickson, now a senior vice president at Simpson.

Erickson, whose company invests in senior and family affordable housing projects all over the country, says he quickly agreed to put in $4.7 million in equity for the $12 million project. “We have always maintained a relationship, so I got the first crack at the deal from an investor point of view,” Erickson says.

The project also made sense financially, he added, because it met the three basic criteria for investing: a strong development market, adequate demand, and short supply. “We look at how a project would be received and how many income-qualified renters were in our range,” Erickson says. “There is a two-month waiting list of people in the market, and very little affordable housing in the city. The fundamentals were very good. It was a pretty quick decision.”

And it turned out to be the right one for investor Simpson. “The developer faced some challenges but we were pretty well-insulated,” Erickson says. “When you are working with a good developer, then you [as the investor] don't have a whole lot of challenges.”

Even when the deal takes a decade.

–Erin Massey is a freelance writer in San Diego.