Jeanice Spence stood in the doorway of her new apartment at Clinton Commons watching her four-month old kitten frolic amongst the guests gathered to celebrate the opening of Oakland’s latest affordable housing development. She said she feels at ease now, finally, after spending years in homeless shelters and rescue missions, struggling to find a place to call home. A blur of potential tenants walked past her, followed by the occasional laugh or tidbit of conversation, but Spence stood at her door, watching her kitten play in between a flurry of dress pants and black skirts filing by. “After the journey I’ve been through the last three years,” she said, her eyes welling with tears, “I feel relief. Indescribable relief.”
Monday afternoon marked the grand opening of Clinton Commons, a newly constructed green affordable housing complex, located in the lower San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland. Fifty-five apartments, ranging from 1 to 4 bedrooms, are now available to low-income families and individuals who earn between $54,000 and $27,000 a year. Sixteen units have Section 8 rental assistance—with a government program for extremely low-income tenants—and eleven are offered to tenants with special needs, including HIV/AIDS patients and those with mental health needs. The building is expected to earn the “platinum” certification, the top one offered for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), an internationally recognized ratings system for the design and performance of environmentally-friendly buildings and homes.
The three-story building sits along East 11th Street, its modern exterior projecting towards the sky. Sets of windows, outlined in burnt orange hues, separate the sections of the façade, which are alternately wooden, grey, and eggshell white. The interiors are bright and warm, with amber light pouring into every room. The units have all the amenities of a of a modern apartment, complete with new appliances, “smart lighting” which brightens or dims as one enters a room, and continuous bath fans that circulate the air constantly.
The development’s green technology includes water-conserving fixtures, added insulation, programmable thermostats, and solar-assisted water heating. All the appliances in the units—from dishwashers and refrigerators to lighting—are all Energy Star rated, which means that the Environmental Protection Agency has determined that they are energy efficient.
Clinton Commons was designed by international architecture and design firm Perkins + Will. The Clinton Commons project was a unique foray for the firm whose resume features the Boeing National Headquarters and Chase Tower in Chicago, and the Mayo Clinic in Florida. To date, the firm has built over 150 LEED certified buildings across the world.
In designing the exterior, architects Jerry Tierney and Joelle Colliard drew inspiration from the lower San Antonio, district which Colliard describes as a “unusual mix of old Victorian houses and large industrial factories.” The building reflects that influence, its exterior a modern amalgamation of the surrounding industrial warehouses and residential homes in the district. Walking up the stairs to the main courtyard reveals an internal street of sorts, coalescing the individual units into a miniature neighborhood.
“We were inspired by the various cultures here,” said Colliard, herself an Oakland resident. “The Latino and Southeast Asian cultures influenced us to make the building very colorful and sculptural.”
“Clinton Commons was developed in response to overcrowding in Lower San Antonio neighborhood,” said Dan Sawislak, the executive director for Resources for Community Development, a non-profit organization that develops and owns affordable housing throughout the East Bay, including Clinton Commons. “There wasn’t nearly enough affordable housing in the area,” said Sawislak at the welcoming ceremony Monday afternoon. “This project originated to support the families and children of this neighborhood.”
Sawislak stood in the courtyard of Clinton Commons surrounded by guests and tenants as he held his hands out, welcoming everyone to the grand opening celebration. “It’s always a fantastic occasion to welcome residents into their new homes,” he said, smiling.
Clinton Commons represents a significant evolution in affordable housing developments, and a stark contrast to the now-blighted public housing projects built across the United States during the mid-19th Century. “The current generation of affordable housing is built in large part by non-profit developers focusing on lower density and lower scale,” said Elissa Dennis of Community Economics, a group that provides financial consulting to non-profit developers of affordable housing. “Non-profits have to able to show that what they build, manage, and maintain is a positive point of pride in the neighborhood.”
The City of Oakland contributed approximately $7.5 million dollars to the project, part of a total $24 million from public and private investments. Additional funding was provided by federal tax credits, the California Housing Finance Agency and Union Bank.
“There’s a stigma around old public housing that wasn’t very well designed, constructed, and managed,” said Carolyn Bookhart, senior project manager for Resources for Community Development. “What we’re building now is private affordable housing of a completely different nature.”
The building also houses a social services office, a multipurpose community area, and a computer lab on the second level. “We’re interested in creating sustainable, healthy communities,” Bookhart said. “We offer resources for childcare, benefits advocacy and job training resources to empower the people that live here.”
During Monday’s opening, Latorchia Beane was sitting with her boyfriend Billy Wilson on a bench, watching children chase each other on a playground in the upper courtyard. “When I saw the floorplan, I fell in love with it immediately,” she says with a laugh. “They sold me before I even signed the lease!” Beane now lives in a one bedroom with her 15-year-old son, Lionel. “It’s hectic on a set income to get something affordable, clean, and comfortable,” she said.