© A.G. Photography

© A.G. Photography

For years, the Lacy neighborhood of Santa Ana, Calif. suffered empty lots strewn with weeds and trash.

And that vacant land wasn't just tucked away quietly off the beaten path. Empty lots stood near a train station, government center, and future light-rail line.

So, the city acquired a few parcels for rental units, totaling almost 5.1 acres, for its first major sustainable infill construction project, part of a master plan and new zoning code to promote transit-oriented development. The city also passed a housing ordinance to encourage affordable housing.

Santa Ana’s now-dissolved redevelopment agency contributed $13 million to the project, which comprises 74 affordable, two- and three-bedroom townhomes.

Occupying almost 2.5 acres, Triada Court opened in March 2013 and quickly leased. To foster density and parking, Rick Aiken of William Hezmalhalch Architects designed the units on two levels—some fronting landscaped sidewalks and others atop a concealed parking podium that leads to private courtyards via three wide stairways.

A key decision was to make the housing fit with the neighborhood’s low-rise, Colonial-style Spanish architecture and resemble market-rate units, so trellises, heavy timbers, and stuccoed façades are prominent.

When possible, the team chose affordable materials, including claylike concrete roof tiles; vinyl windows; and synthetic wood. Landscape designer Hector Baeza, principal at Site Design Studio in Tustin, Calif., also favored smart choices, such as synthetic turf and pots rather than landscaped borders.

Crowdsourced features
Listening to the community is a strategy Related California, based in Irvine, has followed in completing 9,000 affordable units throughout the state. Here, the wish list was for a center with computer labs and child care near the area’s elementary school, as well as retail space.

The developer also donated $10,000 to purchase computers for the school. Chameleon Design in Costa Mesa furnished the community center with a warm, colorful, Spanish and Native American look in durable materials.

The units themselves range from 951 to 1,277 square feet and lease for $605 to $1,041 a month to families earning between 30 to 50 percent of the area median income. Other housing was built nearby on scattered sites, including Triada Village’s 15 new and rehabbed homes, and Triada Gardens’ 25 new townhomes.

The challenge now for California's affordable developers is that the state’s redevelopment agencies were eliminated.

“This was the last big project for our city until we secure other funds,” says council member Michelle Martinez.

Barbara Ballinger is a contributing correspondent for MFE.