A grand opening was held June 15 to celebrate the completion of 90 apartments for seniors at a development called Sequoia Belle Haven, located at 1221 Willow Road in Menlo Park.
The new apartments were redeveloped on the site, where previously, 48 affordable units that were part of Menlo Park's Gateway Apartments were located. Those apartments were over 50 years old.
Eighty-six of the units are one-bedroom apartments and four are two-bedrooms. All are for low-income seniors who earn up to half of the area's median income, which, for a two-person household, is a maximum of $52,650.
"Our county's population of seniors is growing at an unprecedented rate," San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum said in a press release. "Providing high quality housing that they can afford is critical."
Pauline Sibley, 70, is a retired woman who lived in the former Gateway apartments at the Willow Road site and now lives in a new Sequoia Belle Haven apartment. She has lived in Menlo Park for the past 40 years or so, and for most of her adult life, has worked in a variety of jobs, doing janitorial services at tech companies and working on an assembly line for a plastics manufacturer, at a laundromat and as a caregiver.
"Even while working full time," she said, "most of my jobs didn't pay enough to provide stable housing, and finding adequate housing was always a struggle."
When she moved into the Gateway apartments "quite a few years ago," she said, she came to appreciate the sense of community she found there. One man who lives there, she said, can't hear very well, so she acts as his ears.
"With Mr. Gregory – his left eye was gone and my right eye was gone so together we formed a full set of eyes!" she said.
"It's really a blessing for us as elders to feel like we have a safe, peaceful place – and that we're being appreciated for living this long! We feel relief here and the burden is off," she said.
Matthew Franklin, MidPen Housing president, said in a press release, "We've long had a vision for revitalizing this community, located in one of the Peninsula's hottest real estate markets. By replacing 48 obsolete homes and creating 42 brand new ones, we're creating a bulwark to protect residents from displacement."
More seniors in need
For every story like Ms. Sibley's, there are many others of seniors who struggle to find affordable, comfortable housing. MidPen Hosuing received 1,474 applications over a two-week application period for 53 available units, according to a Beth Fraker, spokesperson for the new apartments' developer and property manager, MidPen Housing Corp. The remaining units were claimed by returning tenants from the former apartments there and a manager.
In the months leading up to the application period, more than 1,700 people had added their names to the interest list, Ms. Fraker said.
During the selection process, at least eight people sent letters to the Menlo Park City Council and Housing Commission saying that they felt they had not been properly notified about the process to apply for the available affordable units.
One of those letters came from Mitchell Foreman, 64, and homeless, who, during an interview in April, told the Almanac he often resides in a van in a backyard in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood. He lives most of the time in Menlo Park, he said, but often journeys to neighboring cities that have more robust food-service programs.
At one point, about two years ago, he said, he stayed in a homeless shelter in Santa Clara County, and was recorded in a homeless registry there. He said he was worried he would be ineligible for the Menlo Park units because he was listed as living in a different county. "I had no idea they would put me in the system for homelessness in Santa Clara County," he said.
He said he's "getting kind of tired" and wants to get off the streets.
He is currently on the Sequoia Belle Haven waitlist, and has been referred to other MidPen Housing units he is eligible for, Ms. Fraker said.
MidPen Housing did extensive outreach for the program, she said. The agency mailed flyers to everyone on the interest list, contacted more than 63 organizations, including the Belle Haven Senior Center, local churches and nonprofits, put ads in local publications and emailed the marketing flyer to everyone on the city's below-market-rate housing interest list.
Tenants were selected via lottery, she said.
The project represents the completion of the first half of a plan to rebuild and expand the number of existing apartments at the 1200 and 1300 blocks of Willow Road, improving living conditions and increasing the number of people who can live there.
The apartments were built in 1960 and acquired by MidPen Housing in 1987. In 2013, the city of Menlo Park rezoned the area to allow a greater number of affordable apartments to be built.
The newly completed Sequoia Belle Haven has a fitness center, computer lab, a community room with a kitchen, and outdoor gathering spaces and courtyards.
The building is planned for LEED Platinum certification and has solar panels, high-efficiency windows, and drought-tolerant landscaping.
The $43 million project was funded with $5.1 million from the city of Menlo Park, about $1.7 million from San Mateo County's Department of Housing, a $25 million loan and $9.2 million permanent loan from Wells Fargo, $890,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and about $2.1 million from MidPen Housing Corp.
The second half of the project, to rebuild and expand the 1300 block of Willow Road for family apartments, is scheduled for discussion by the Menlo Park City Council during a study session on Tuesday, June 20. Even under the smallest configuration of 118 affordable units proposed, it would be the biggest affordable housing project ever built in Menlo Park, according to Meghan Revolinsky, Menlo Park management analyst.