For more than 30 years, Mercy Housing has been shaping lives. It’s a Colorado-based company that specializes in affordable housing, and although it started small, the operation has spread quickly and now has 11 regional offices across the nation. To date, Mercy Housing has created 40,000 affordable housing units worth $2.6 billion, changing the lives of more than 136,800 residents. And it’s not just about providing housing options to people who had none before, it’s about pioneering ways to think about the future of our cities.
Numbers on paper provide a bird’s-eye view of the work Mercy Housing is doing, but what does that work look like at street level? To find out, we adjust the microscope on two of the company’s latest California initiatives: Boulevard Court, the renovation of a defunct Budget Inn in Sacramento, and Jefferson Park, a reclaimed burger stand in Los Angeles that boasts a long, surprising history.
BOULEVARD COURT, SacrAmento, CA
The cable TV show Breaking Bad focuses on drug culture in the southwestern United States. In one scene, a drug-enforcement officer takes his young nephew to a roadside motel frequented by meth addicts and prostitutes to scare him straight. In Sacramento, an old, battered Budget Inn could have served as the set for that scene, judging by the number of drug- and prostitution-related emergency calls that originated from its premises.
For years, the residents of central Sacramento watched the motor inn just off Highway 99 become a place to avoid. Rusty signs hung off-kilter, and scorched brown weeds grew freely through cracks in the uneven pavement.
“It was a neighborhood nuisance,” says Stephan Daues, Mercy Housing’s regional director of housing development in Sacramento. “One year, the Budget Inn had the highest number of calls for service anywhere in the city.” But it wasn’t always that way. In the early 1960s, the corridor served south Sacramento’s business district and offered easy access to the state fair and other attractions. “The motels used to be very strong contributors to the local economy,” Daues says.
It didn’t last. As the economy declined, so did the motel. The once-populated motor inn became the kind of last resort that could percolate a potent crime cocktail. But thanks to Mercy Housing and its public and private partners, all that has changed. “Problem area” isn’t a phrase that can be used to describe the situation anymore. Using the bones of the old motel, the Boulevard Court apartments—74 new studio and one-bedroom units—represent a new, powerful opportunity for disabled residents who were previously homeless.
Getting started wasn’t without its challenges. The neighborhood had other reasons it was suffering, not just the Budget Inn, so the planners had to consider how they could change the culture of the area at large. Ultimately, they decided to use the building’s existing footprint to reduce rubble and to maintain the design continuity of the Stockton corridor, which draws heavily on Spanish and Southeast Asian influences. They gutted the structure down to its framing, expanded the lobby, and added a community building where residents could gather for financial and time-management courses. They also used the enclosed courtyard to create an added sense of security. Anders & Falltrick, the architect tapped for the job, came up with a creative plan to break up the visual mass of the building and use simple, economical techniques to vary the imposing 600-foot roofline and give it more depth of perspective. In addition, it spiced things up with homage to Spanish-mission design by including arches, a clay-colored roof, and a stucco finish on the front of the building.
It has plenty of environmental benefits, too, starting with the fact that tons of waste was diverted from landfills by adapting the existing structure to its new use. Once that decision was made, it was all about sustainable construction techniques. “We wrapped it with a modern, state-of-the-art HardiePlank system,” Daues says. “On the southwest side, the new pitched roof is equipped with a photovoltaic system and water-heating collectors. It’s a very attractive building that’s quite recognizable as the original motor inn.”
One year in, Daues and his team have seen an incredible acceptance of the tenants by the community at large in a way that shows Mercy Housing and its partners that their approach is the right one. “Many of these folks are trying for the first time in a long time to live in permanent housing, abide by a lease, and deal with the issues that caused their homelessness in the first place,” Daues says. “It’s very challenging to do that on this scale, and it’s working. This is the turning point.”
JEFFERSON PARK, los angeles
If you found yourself in the Jefferson Park district of Los Angeles any time between the 1950s and ’90s, a burger joint on Western Avenue was the place to be. Originally called Mr. Fatburger, it represented more than just a succulent ground-beef patty and chili fries. It was a cornerstone in the community—a gathering place patronized by professional athletes and immortalized in hip-hop lyrics from the West Coast to the East.
Founded in 1947 by an African-American woman named Lovie Yancey, the little walk-up bloomed into first a national, then a global chain. But while the company flourished and changed its name to just Fatburger, the original location floundered. The original joint had been closed for the better part of a decade, the walls became prey for graffiti taggers. People would dump garbage on the lot. The awning hung ajar, creaking from a lack of maintenance. For a while, the dilapidated old site was used to store buses. It was an eyesore.
Mercy Housing saw an opportunity to salvage a piece of cultural history and provide living space for people without homes. They broke ground in 2012 on a new complex that would create 60 affordable housing units while preserving the Fatburger building.
“This site is significant because of its legacy,” says Ben Phillips, one of Mercy Housing’s vice presidents and the director of housing development in LA. “That a business started by an African-American woman during the 1940s grew into a national chain and still exists to this day is pretty historic. There are a lot of photos and stories centered around musicians who would go to the stand after their gigs late at night. It was a fixture for many decades.”
Part of the contract agreement for the project was to keep the original Fatburger joint intact, so Mercy Housing plans to restore the little stand to the way it appeared back in 1952. It will serve as both a visual and physical nexus for residents, a bridge between the neighborhood’s cultural past and its evolving future.
Those designs for the future are lofty. On the site, the company will develop one-, two-, and three-bedroom units that look like apartment buildings connected to the historic stand. The units are for use by individuals whose income levels are, on average, 50 percent of the area’s median income; for a family of four in LA, that’s around $30,000 per year.
“Wages in Southern California often don’t keep up with housing costs,” Phillips explains. He thinks that the strength of the building design will play a significant role in helping residents sculpt stable lifestyles, and his team took special care to erect façades that were appropriate to their soundings. Along Western Avenue, the building profile features urban frontage. Not so on the opposite side, which sits next to bungalows on 30th and 31st streets and so has a distinctly residential flavor. There, they outfitted the apartments with front porches to encourage more community interaction.
Phillips also highlights the work-live design of the units, which he hopes will encourage entrepreneurship. “These spaces provide us the opportunity to carry on another facet of Lovie Yancey’s legacy with Fatburger: the spirit of small businesses,” he says. “This is a neighborhood of Los Angeles that needs economic development, and we think this is a project that will support that.”
That’s the sort of forethought that pervades the entire project, especially in Mercy Housing’s attention to green features. The team is shooting for a LEED Silver certification. “It gets high points in a number of areas that aren’t particularly sexy,” Phillips laughs, giving the apartments’ proximity to the new Metro Expo Line as an example. “It has bicycle parking, and it’s low-income housing, which automatically gets it some points.”
All of these advance the site toward Silver, but the building has a few other highlights that show Mercy Housing’s interest in the future of sustainability. As a whole, the project significantly exceeds Title 24, California’s strict energy-efficiency code, with mini-split air-conditioning and heating systems, high-efficiency windows and framing techniques, and optimized insulation. There’s photovoltaic panels on the roof, but the crown jewel of the property is in the landscaping, which is a series of edible gardens that the residents and staff will harvest and maintain. It also has a composting system to cycle waste back to the gardens as fertilizer.
In addition to providing a space that’s both sustainable and affordable, Mercy Housing offers self-improvement programs for its residents. Even though the programs are voluntary, Phillips and his team have seen an overwhelming participation rate. “Our residents will be living with any number of challenges or disabilities,” Phillips says. “The intent of this property is to help stabilize people’s lives and to put them in a position to pursue their own hopes and dreams.”