The nation’s first all-universal-design, low-income apartment complex has opened on Berkeley’s University Avenue with such happy residents and such good-looking architecture, it raises the question: Why can’t all new housing be accessible to people with disabilities, as well as affordable and pretty?
"And it’s a wonderful question, why don’t we have more universal design that people can afford?" says Sue Siegel, president of the board for nonprofit Hearth Homes Community Building, which worked with another nonprofit, developer Affordable Housing Associates, to complete the 27-unit project designed by Kava Massih. "We’re working on that, especially in light of the Baby Boomers aging. We’re all going to need universal design at some point, and retrofitting is much more expensive than building."
Building in the Bay Area isn’t cheap, however, and Kevin Zwick, Affordable Housing Associates director of housing development, was wiping the sweat off his brow at Wednesday’s grand opening after spending seven years rounding up eight financial partners to ante up $11.2 million to build University Neighborhood Apartments.
Adhering to universal design principles that call for such accommodations as wide doorways, surplus floor space, lowered kitchen counters and roll-in showers with grab bars added only 5 to 10 percent to the cost, Zwick estimates. Still, he found himself asked to explain why all of the units had to be so equipped when only 14 were going to be set aside for tenants with disabilities and the others merely for the income-qualified.
"I think government funders understand affordable housing and understand disabled housing, but it was a lot of work to get them to see the benefit of doing both together," he says.
"The idea was to not segregate the tenants in wheelchairs to a couple of units on the ground floor, but to develop a community where anybody can use any apartment," says Susan Friedland, Affordable Housing Associates executive director. "Now friends can visit each other without worrying about the wheelchair fitting."
Siegel, who had to move twice when her husband was using a wheelchair, pipes up with yet another fact: People with disabilities statistically rate high in unemployment and low in income, and she says their isolation is partly to blame.
"The idea of respecting rather than looking down on the disabled is embodied in this building," she says. "Things like this are small steps toward giving people the chance to network with people with disabilities."
These apartments range from one bedroom (700 square feet) to three bedrooms (1,200 square feet), at rents (depending on household income levels) starting at $226 and topping out at $1,203. Massih’s design created an oasis off busy University Avenue by putting parking (each unit comes with a space) and businesses on the ground floor and situating residences on the next three floors around a landscaped courtyard.
Laundry and community rooms are on the second floor, where a service agency called Toolworks will provide job and social guidance to residents. On the fourth floor, a secluded deck roofed by sky and beams provides an airy retreat.
In a design strategy that would prove pleasing to both the tenants and to the homeowners of the bungalows in the leafy streets behind the complex, the architects used a stair-step approach, so that the complex is just one story high on the neighborhood border, stepping up to two, three and finally, on the University Avenue front, four stories.
As a result, no two units are identical, which is a far cry from the traditional concept of low-income housing.
"This is not what’s thought of as affordable housing," says Zwick, gazing at the high ceilings, granite counters and oak cabinets in a fourth-floor two-bedroom. "Usually you think boxes, flat roof. Here, it was -- Let’s push the envelope.
About 100 tenants, including four in wheelchairs, filled the units a couple of weeks ago, and some are still pinching themselves. Cynthia Daniels, who has lupus and describes herself as having been both homeless and poor, said she and her 19-year-old son walked out of their bedrooms the other night, looked at each other and burst into tears.
"I have never had a dishwasher," says Daniels, caressing the model in her kitchen. "This is just a miracle. And we are all just so proud of this. Some of the kids came into the courtyard and threw dirt one time, one time, and there must have been five parents who came out and said, "No way, you are not messing this up."
Affordable Housing Associates has other East Bay projects on the drawing board, though not yet another all-universal complex. Zwick is hoping University Neighborhood Apartments serves as showplace for future building.
"We certainly don’t expect this to be our one and only," he says.