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The Community-Centered Approach: Addressing California’s affordable housing crisis

By Tom Pflueger for Commercial Construction & Renovation | November 11, 2021


California’s senior population has been growing at a rapid pace for the past few years. According to projections by the state Department of Finance, the number of Californians 65 and older is expected to climb by 2.1 million by 2026. By contrast, the number of 25- to 64-year-olds is projected to grow by just more than half a million and the number of Californians younger than 25 will grow by a mere 2,500.


Despite the shifting demographics, the conversation surrounding the affordable housing crisis has been largely absent from state legislators as politicians take hold of other issues, including education, health-care, and the environment. Meanwhile the silvering of California is placing enormous strain on the state’s already fragile network of long-term services and supports, including affordable-housing for seniors, in-home aides, and skilled nursing facilities.


So, the question becomes, “How can architects address the issue and help provide solutions to this statewide crisis?”


Paired with the onset of an unprecedented pandemic that sent unemployment rates soaring higher than they were during the Great Depression, providing affordable and safe housing options for seniors and other vulnerable populations became more crucial than ever. Looking to ease the affordable-housing crisis plaguing the Bay Area, Alameda, California- based MBH Architects, in collaboration with Jon Worden Architects, assisted MidPen Housing Corporation in designing Fetters and Celestina Garden Apartments.


The development serves to provide low-cost rentals in the heart of Sonoma County—one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation—to low-income families and seniors.


Fetters Apartments

The first phase in the development, Fetters Apartments, consists of 60 units offered with one to three bedrooms spread across five buildings. An additional community building features amenities such as a communal kitchen, computer lab, laundry room, and a classroom for after school programs. A shared garden further bonds residents, as does a school playground, while a public bike and pedestrian trail encourages outdoor activities.

Fetters sits on property that was once part of an historic public warm spring, nearby the Sonoma Mission Hotel. It sits on a geothermal line that dots communities up the Sonoma Valley. Previously recognized as the Fetters Warm Spring, this swimming hole acted as a large gathering spot for the community. Nearby, the natural geography and biology of extensive vineyards in Sonoma Valley served as the inspiration for the exterior design of the complex.


Celestina Garden Apartments

The second phase of the housing development, Celestina Garden Apartments, provides 40 affordable units for low-in-come seniors, with eight units reserved for homeless seniors and seniors displaced by the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires. The apartments push the agenda forward within the multi-housing industry by providing large units that are attainable for seniors at an affordable rate with connections to nature through outdoor amenities, common spaces, and a shared garden.


The shared gardens give residents autonomy and a familiar sense of home that alleviate some of the challenges with moving into an apartment building. When designing the apartments, MBH made sure that all the elements are completely walkable and provided simple solutions for daily activities.


Upon arrival, residents are greeted by the property’s impressive 9,000-square-foot community garden consisting of planter beds brimming with a variety of vegetables and herbs. An entry trellis leads residents into a spacious courtyard filled with abundant landscaping, created by Quadriga Landscape Architecture and Planning. Various seating arrangements are perfectly situated for residents to take advantage of Sonoma Valley’s wonderful sunshine. Past the courtyards is an enclosed, two-story shared space featuring a communal kitchen and an open floor plan where residents can relax and mingle.


The building also houses a community gym, which features views of the valley, and a bike path connecting the development with the larger community. Although amenities became somewhat obsolete during the pandemic, there is an uptick and demand for workforce-oriented amenities.



The building’s exterior is soft and warm, with a variety of materials commonly found throughout Sonoma Valley. Wood balconies and guardrails add an organic feel that fits within the architectural scheme of the community. The building is grounded with an earth toned color palette that draws upon the local vernacular, blending the building into the surrounding neighborhood and landscape.


The apartment offers 37 one-bed-room and three two-bedroom apartments accessed from open walkways bathed in natural light, which take advantage of Sonoma’s mild climate and provide a direct connection to the courtyard as well as views to the valley beyond.


Sustainability and resident well-being was top of mind during the design development. MBH Architects worked alongside Jon Worden Architects to infuse environmentally- friendly design elements within each unit, including low VOC coatings and sealants; cabinetry with no added urea formaldehyde; GREENGUARD®-certified flooring; and Energy Star appliances. Efficient heating and cooling equipment regulate each unit, while solar thermal panels

on the building’s exterior preheat water used by the entire community. In addition, photovoltaic panels provide clean energy for all indoor common areas as well as landscape lighting.


The Pandemic’s Impact on Multi-Family Housing

As a result of the pandemic, MBH has begun designing larger units that promote flexibility of use within the private and public spaces. Common areas are becoming more significant, and residents are thinking about doubling their homes as working spaces, especially within those larger units.

The firm has been primarily inspired by the versatility in European and Japanese design styles for small, efficient spaces that provide a variety of functionality—pulling in multi-use or versatile furniture solutions such as Murphy beds and modular furniture pieces that provide more than one use.




For MBH’s senior care work, it has researched blue zones and where centurions are thriving, and how it can bring elements of those lifestyles into our senior facilities.


Although amenities became some-what obsolete during the pandemic, there is an uptick and demand for work-force-oriented amenities. Private working rooms with more robust Wi-Fi, electric hook-ups, and technology connections have been prioritized as a large population of our nation’s workforce will continue to work remotely. Ultimately, MBH’s goal for solving the senior housing crisis in California is rooted in providing living spaces that accommodate the evolving nature of people’s day-to-day lives—designing apartment units that feel like a much larger home.

Originally Published in Commercial Construction & Renovation