Los Angeles-area church celebrates ‘win for everyone’ affordable housing groundbreaking

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Aug 17, 2023

Representatives of organizations partnering to build Orchard View Gardens, a senior affordable housing complex at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Buena Park, California, turn over ceremonial shovels of dirt during a Aug. 16 groundbreaking event. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

[Diocese of Los Angeles] For Patricia Jebens, celebrating the Aug. 15 groundbreaking for Orchard View Gardens – a 66-apartment Buena Park senior affordable housing community on the St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church campus in Buena Park, California – was a dream come true.

Since she joined the church in 1960, “We’ve tried so many options – what felt like good options at the time – to use the land to benefit the community,” Jebens recalled. “Outreach is such a big part of who we are. Now, it’s finally come to fruition.”

About 100 local church, civic, community and business leaders came together with Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor to celebrate the sixth such project “already approved, underway, or open” on church campuses.

“There are about 81,000 people right now living on the streets in Orange and Los Angeles counties,” said Taylor, who has pledged to create similar community partnerships on 25 percent of the diocese’s 133 church campuses.

He encouraged attendees to support California Senate Bill 4, “if you like the idea of cutting red tape and making it easier for churches and other faith communities to build housing.” If passed the measure, nicknamed “YIMBY – Yes, in my back yard,” would streamline affordable housing development on religious institution and nonprofit college campuses regardless of local zoning restrictions. The Senate approved the legislation May 31 and referred it to the State Assembly, where it was last amended August 14.

Anticipated to be completed in 2024, Orchard View Gardens will transform 1.76 acres of underutilized church land into beautiful apartment homes for seniors aged 62 and over who earn less than 60% of the area median income. Eight units will be reserved for seniors who have experienced homelessness.

“St. Joseph’s has long desired to be part of the solution to Orange County’s housing shortage,” said the Rev. Cindy Voien, St. Joseph’s rector. “Only adding housing stock at the affordable end of the range of rents can provide relief, and this is what our partnership is doing. We look forward to welcoming new neighbors right next to our church.”

Orchard View Gardens is a great example of “what is possible when public and private partners work together to tackle housing challenges,” says Michael Ruane, president of National Community Renaissance, also known as National CORE. “Such collaborations leverage resources and expertise that lead to impactful solutions that benefit residents, especially seniors, who struggle with housing affordability.”

National CORE, one of the nation’s leading developers of affordable housing communities, helped secure funding from community partners, including city, county and state housing trusts, which provide long-term, low-interest loans, to be repaid through earnings derived from managing the facility.

The 30-year-old nonprofit developer also leases space from the church, oversees construction and manages the facility after completion, according to Alexa Washburn, National CORE’s senior vice president for planning acquisitions.

Both Mayor Art Brown and Jesus Gaona-Perez, a senior policy advisor in the office of Supervisor Doug Chaffee of Orange County’s 4th District, which encompasses Buena Park, called affordable housing the number-one challenge facing senior citizens.

Roughly one-fourth of Buena Park’s 83,000 residents are people aged 55 and older, with a median income of about $53,000 yearly, compared to an overall median income of about $130,000, Washburn previously told The Episcopal News.

“Orange County is in a housing crisis for all levels of affordability, including low-income housing for seniors,” Brown told the gathering. “The cost of living is the number-one issue facing seniors and this project will address it.”

Located near retail shops, grocery stores, parks and services, Orchard View Gardens will feature a primary residential apartment building, along with nine single-story casitas, a 3,000-square-foot community room, private patios and balconies, and outdoor leisure and recreational areas.

Case management, peer support activities, crisis counseling, support for medical and mental health benefits counseling, and housing retention skills will be provided for residents by the Orange County Health Care Agency, said Ian Kemmer, assistant deputy director of adult and older adult, mental health, and recovery services.

“Providing a home to some of our most vulnerable citizens, seniors struggling with mental health conditions, is so important to their health and safety,” he said.

Greg Bradbard, president of Hope through Housing Foundation, an arm of National CORE, invited attendees to anticipate completion of the California Mission-style apartments in 14 to 18 months. “What we know is, this place is going to address a serious need.” The agency will work to ensure residents have “a place that’s safe, that’s stable, with services available, providing fitness and health screenings, transportation, and access to health care and other services.”

The development isn’t just “a win for everybody, especially next year when 66 people move in,” Sharon Pewtress of Episcopal Communities and Services (ECS), also a partner in the Buena Park project, told The News. “It’s a win for generations and generations to come. This impact is going to outlive us all. It’s going to improve lives for so many people beyond our own.”

ECS, an institution of the diocese, was founded in 1923 to create housing for clergy and their families, Pewtress said, and has evolved into strategic partnerships with the diocese “with a mission to create housing solutions for our most vulnerable in our communities.”

Recently ECS named the Rev. Michael Bell as director of housing and business development, a newly created position to help facilitate housing developments in the diocese’s congregations.

Long-range dreams

For former St. Joseph’s rectors the Rev. Mary Trainor and retired Northern Indiana Bishop Ed Little, the celebration was the culmination of long-range dreams.

“There are few things in this world where everybody wins, but this is one of them,” Trainor told The News. “It’s a win for everybody; the church, a win for the diocese and a win for the developer, and for future residents, as well as creating jobs for the next 18 months,” she said, adding that she hoped to inspire similar developments in Tucson, Arizona, where she now resides.

Little recalled the St. Joseph’s community dreaming about adding affordable housing to underutilized land years ago. “This is thrilling to see. I’m delighted. This is a wonderful community. This fits the kind of embrace that St. Joseph’s has had for decades.”

Beth Brown, a long-time St. Joseph’s member, and executive director of Build Futures, a nonprofit agency aiding homeless youth, was visibly moved by the groundbreaking.

“This is very, very important to me,” she said. “I was on the vestry with Rev. Mary when we first began dreaming about this project. There’ve been many iterations of what we were going to do with this ‘back 40’ space.”

Ultimately, stalled hopes and dreams strengthened the community’s faith and resolve, she said. “You get discouraged, and then you’re up again, and it builds hope. It absolutely strengthens hope, that you can hope for things and move on. It’s taken a long time, but it’s really, truly happening and it’s beautiful.”

Jebens said she hopes to reach out to Orchard View Gardens residents once the development is completed. “We’re hoping to reach out to them, and we hope they will reach out to us.”

The Rev. Jessie Smith, rector of St. Ambrose Church in Claremont, was also on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking. The Claremont congregation anticipates building a 65-unit development with low-income and permanent supportive housing, she said.

“We’re in the process of engaging the community now. We’ve done a bit of outreach to our neighbors, with a community fair this summer,” she said. The church hopes to break ground on the project in early 2024.