Visalia, California: Supportive Housing for Seniors at Sierra Meadows
The Sierra Meadows development in Visalia, California provides 42 units of sustainable supportive housing for low-income elderly residents. Completed in spring 2011, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-certified building combines green features with a robust service program that supports resident health and well-being and provides seniors with a comfortable environment where they can age in place. In recognition of its comprehensive supportive service model, the HUD Section 202-funded project was honored with a 2013 MetLife Foundation Award for Excellence in Affordable Housing.
Background and Context
Located approximately 40 miles southeast of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley, Visalia sits at the heart of one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions. Buoyed by a strong agricultural economy and by its affordability compared with other California communities, the city has experienced steady growth over the past 50 years, with a population of approximately 12,000 in 1950 growing to nearly 130,000 in 2013.1 Despite the city’s relative affordability, the more than 1,300 senior households who rent in Visalia suffer disproportionately from high housing costs. The 2010 Housing Element of the Visalia General Plan identifies a growing need for affordable senior rental housing. Nearly 60 percent of the city’s senior renter households pay more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent. That is more than double the 25 percent of senior homeowners in the city who experience a similar cost burden and significantly higher than the 46 percent of rent-burdened seniors in Tulare County.2
For nearly 40 years, Christian Church Homes of Northern California (CCH) has partnered with Visalia Senior Housing (VSH) to address the affordability challenges facing low- and extremely low-income seniors in the city and throughout Tulare County.3 In 2004, CCH and VSH acquired an underutilized 2.5-acre property near the Central Visalia Redevelopment District with the goal of expanding its housing and supportive services to low-income seniors.4 Along with building on CCH’s successful model for aging in place, the project emphasized the use of sustainable design elements to promote resource efficiency; create high-quality, durable homes; and set a new standard for low-income senior housing.5
With a name inspired by its view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east, the Sierra Meadows project addresses the needs of the elderly population it serves, the local context, and the climate of the San Joaquin Valley. In providing quality homes where seniors can age in place, the developers, along with Mayers Architecture, focused on accessibility, durability, and sustainability. Kitchens and bathrooms accommodate the turning radius of mobility devices, and each unit features a recessed shower that can easily be adapted with a seat for residents with mobility impairments. Extra-wide corridors fitted with railings help visually impaired residents move more freely around the building; accent colors used on different floors help residents navigate the building. To promote indoor air quality and alleviate some of the respiratory challenges facing many seniors, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, adhesives, and coatings are used throughout the building.
The two-story structure’s design both respects and enhances the surrounding neighborhood. The building’s architectural elements, including its porch and façade, reflect architectural treatments found throughout Visalia, and the L-shaped massing is appropriately scaled to blend in with neighboring homes.6 Located on the first floor of the building is a community space with a terrace that includes raised planting beds for gardening. Leading from the terrace, a walkway consistent with the accessibility standards of the American with Disabilities Act connects Sierra Meadows to an adjacent city park.
The building’s form and orientation were also influenced by environmental factors and resource efficiency goals. The south-facing facade has deeply set eaves and sunshades to provide passive cooling in Visalia’s hot summer months. The design minimizes west-facing windows to reduce heat gain (only 32 of 169 windows face the afternoon sun) and deciduous trees provide additional shade along this exposure. A passive cooling tower that extends above the roofline provides non-mechanical space conditioning and natural lighting to the building’s common areas. The tower harnesses the prevailing northerly winds to create a low-pressure area above the tower that draws hot air from the building. Louvers in the tower can be opened or closed depending on the time of day and the building’s space conditioning needs. These features, combined with a well-insulated building envelope and ENERGY STAR®-rated appliances, help make the building 31 percent more energy efficient than a similar building designed to meet Title 24 of the California Building Standards Code.7
Because CCH and VSH made sustainability a priority from the start of the design process, integrating these features into the project increased the construction budget by only two percent.8 Life-cycle costs influenced the selection of materials, which include low-maintenance exterior finishes of stucco and cementitious panels.
Comprehensive Service Program
CCH and VSH have leveraged their relationships with public and private agencies in the community to provide comprehensive supportive services for Sierra Meadows’ residents. An onsite service coordinator thoroughly assesses each resident’s ability to perform the activities essential to daily living and prepares an individualized comprehensive resident care plan. This plan meets the supportive service needs of each resident, ensuring that they can live independently.9 Service interventions include coordinating transportation for shopping, assisting with health care management, and organizing recreational and social activities for residents, along with outreach and coordination with other agencies. For example, Sierra Meadows residents have access to the In-Home Supportive Services program funded by the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency; the services provided through this program, including meal preparation, laundry, and cleaning, can help residents delay or avoid placement in out-of-home care.10
Financing for the $9.4 million project came from a $6.3 million capital advance subsidy from the HUD Section 202 program, $2.7 million in HOME Investment Partnerships program funds from the city of Visalia, and a $420,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Program. An operating subsidy is provided through a project rental assistance contract from HUD.
With its comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability and a supportive service environment that promotes independent living for seniors, Sierra Meadows represents a promising model of affordable, supportive housing that allows seniors to age in place. The 2013 MetLife Foundation award recognized the importance of CCH’s comprehensive approach to affordable housing and supportive services modeled at Sierra Meadows. As the first HUD Section 202-funded project in the state to achieve LEED Gold certification, Sierra Meadows also raises the standard for sustainable senior housing in California.
Supportive service environments for seniors hold significant potential for maintaining a high quality of life for residents as they age and as a cost-effective means of delivering services. Read more about aging in place and the benefits of supportive housing for seniors in the fall 2013 issue of Evidence Matters.
City of Visalia. 2010. Housing Element, 4–5, 9, 10, 62.
Project documents provided by CCH.
Ibid.; email correspondence with Rhonda Haynes, housing specialist, City of Visalia, 18 December 2013.
Interview with Kathleen Mertz, project manager, CCH, 13 December 2013.
Interview with Larry Mayers, Mayers Architecture, 20 December 2013.
Ibid; project documents provided by CCH.
Project documents provided by CCH.