A decade-long effort to build a downtown Palo Alto affordable housing project officially came to fruition Friday afternoon at the grand opening ceremony for 801 Alma Family Apartments, a four-story, 50-unit building for families earning 30 to 50 percent of the median income in the area.
"Sometimes you think 10 years isn't worth it, but I walked in today and said, 'Oh my god, this is so worth it,'" said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, a Northern California nonprofit that works to build and support affordable housing. "This is one of the nicest developments that we have ever built. It is in a community that desperately needs affordable housing."
The apartment complex, a product of years-long collaboration between Eden, the nonprofit Community Working Group and the City of Palo Alto, was approved by the city in November 2009, despite criticism that it was too dense, opposition from neighbors, concern about its close proximity to the road and a controversial building design, often described as fortress-like.
The city supported the project with a bankroll of $9,780,000; other funding came from federal low-income housing tax credits, county general-use funds, the Santa Clara County Housing Trust, the Sobrato Family Foundation and many donors.
801 Alma, which replaced Ole's auto repair shop and a city electrical substation, includes a large community room, outdoor courtyard, play structure for children, computer learning center, bike storage, bench-lined sidewalk, laundry room, on-site manager's unit and underground parking. The housing is meant to serve working families earning at or below the county's median income, which in 2012 was approximately $22,050 for one person at 30 percent of the median and up to $52,500 for a family of four at 50 percent.
Jesus Armas, chair of Eden Housing's board of directors, said the waiting list for 801 Alma's 50 one- to three-bedroom units was in excess of 1,000 families.
"When we saw the numbers of people who applied for this development, we were overwhelmed," Mandolini added. "And we continue to be overwhelmed in the Bay Area. We have 15,000 households on our waiting list right now for 6,000 units of housing. So we could turn our properties over three times and still not accommodate everybody that wants to live in them."
One applicant who did get a room at 801 Alma, Karen Purvis, spoke at the event. Born and raised in Palo Alto, the single mother of two was homeless for three and a half years. She said she spent those years hopping from one local motel or hotel to another, trying to stay in the area so her sons could attend Palo Alto schools.
"He didn't tell (his friends) he was homeless," she said of one of her sons. "He told them that he lived in downtown Palo Alto."
Nayeli Vazquez, another 801 Alma resident, opened her three-bedroom apartment for a tour on Friday. With twin 3-year-olds and a 7-year-old, she said it was not only the affordability but also the space in her new 1,192-square-foot home that has made all the difference.
"The space for my kids (is the most important)," she said. "The place we were before was a small space."
The message that affordable housing is still desperately needed in Palo Alto lingered at Friday's event, despite the celebratory atmosphere.
"We work hard to build housing and services for those who need it, for people who are doing the right things working hard, raising a family (and) who want nothing more than a good school district for their kids and a place to lay their head at night that's safe and clean and warm and a place that's near where they shop and where they work," said John Barton, president for the Community Working Group board of directors and former Palo Alto City Council member. "It's not too much to ask for, but it's very hard in this part of the world."
Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shephard voiced her desire to see Palo Alto continue its "quest" to support affordable housing. She referenced the Maybell Avenue housing project, whose plans had included affordable-housing for seniors but whose approval was overturned by voters in last November's referendum.
"We do have funds returning for the affordable housing category, sadly, for another project that the city had agreed to but the community was challenged by," she said. "But on the other hand, those funds are available, so we might have another project coming sooner than later."