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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A place to call home A place to call home (May 18, 2005)

Latest affordable housing complex opens in downtown Palo Alto

by Jocelyn Dong

Two weeks after moving into a new three-bedroom apartment, Rebeca Rifenberg's family photos adorn the refrigerator and her daughters' artwork neatly hangs on the wall.

Like many Palo Alto moms, Rifenberg is relieved to provide her daughters with a stable home. Unlike many, the special-education teacher is only paying about $500 a month to do so.

For Rifenberg, the new affordable Oak Court Apartments at Ramona Street and Channing Avenue offer hope for the future -- giving her girls, ages 10 and 12, their own rooms as they enter their teen years on Rifenberg's modest income.

For the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, which built the 53-unit, affordable housing complex in the University South neighborhood, the project is its latest effort to maintain the community's character and diversity. All told, the nonprofit manages nearly 700 affordable apartments throughout the city.

Since April 29, residents have been moving into the one-, two- and three-bedroom units. They are the lucky ones. Close to 1,200 applicants vied for the apartments, according to Liz Wills, director of property management for the housing corporation.

To qualify, applicants had to earn between $8,800 and $79,000 a year. Some people who didn't make the cut earned too little, some too much. Others opted out after deciding to live in another city, or because they couldn't save up the deposit and first month's rent, Wills said.

Rifenberg, who went through a messy divorce a few years back, met the requirement for the very low-income units -- earning 35 percent of the state's median income.

Other residents qualified by earning 50 or 60 percent of the county's median income. That comes to no more than $63,660 for a family of four, for example.

Based on income, residents pay varying rates for the same unit. A family at the 60 percent income level would pay $1,444 a month for the same apartment as Rifenberg's.

Wills speaks almost giddily about the opening of the apartment complex. But it's not the community center with the four new eMacs and flat-screen TV nor the underground parking or the social services offered to residents that thrill her the most. It's the diversity.

"This square block area is going to be the most racially diverse part of Palo Alto," said Wills, who herself is African American.

Residents include immigrants from Russia, Asia, Africa and South America, plus a mix of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and Caucasians.

"We beat all the numbers," she said, referring to U.S. Census statistics for the rest of the city.

Not only that, but the job of placing the residents within the seven buildings fell to Wills, who holds graduate degrees from MIT and Harvard, and has a professional background in housing and community development, including a job with the Ford Foundation.

Actively trying to avoid creating racial or economic enclaves, she placed non-English speakers next to native speakers, and professionals next to service workers.

"It's going to be really cool. People are going to learn a lot from each other," Wills said of her social engineering.

Among the tenants, for example, are a college math professor, a school janitor, a physicist and a long-time clerk at a well-known downtown store.

Wills is most excited for the children of the complex.

"Who you become changes because your neighbor is a physicist," she said, referring to one girl who excitedly talked about all the books her neighbor, the physicist, owned. Wills herself was the first in her family to graduate from college.

Whether the social experiment will result in what Wills hopes for remains to be seen, but the project as a whole is already producing economic benefits for residents.

Wills spoke of one family in which both parents work two jobs. Prior to getting a three-bedroom Oak Court apartment, they rented a one-bedroom unit elsewhere for $1,100. Now the family's saving $600 a month, allowing the parents to open bank accounts for each child, as college funds.

Other families will set aside money for the American Dream, Wills said -- buying a house, possibly courtesy of a program such as Habitat for Humanity.

For Marian "Faye" Johnson, who sat in her well-appointed living room last week with a large purple bouquet of Mother's Day roses and orchids nearby, the goal in moving wasn't to save up for a home but to gain a measure of independence.

Following back surgery, the older woman -- formerly the manager at a dental office -- lived with her daughter's family in the Downtown North neighborhood.

Now living at Oak Court, she is close to Whole Foods Market, where she buys her groceries, and Lytton Gardens, where she volunteers. She enjoys her new backyard, which is dotted with potted plants, and walking in the neighborhood.

As a person on disability, Johnson's ability to stay near family while not being a burden to them has been "a blessing," she said. "We danced and shouted for joy when I signed the lease. We had a big party."

Johnson has met some of her neighbors, though she observed that none have been native English speakers. She doesn't mind. It reminds her of her younger days, when she and her family lived in Spain for seven years, and she did her best to overcome language barriers and get to know people.

If there's been a drawback to the move, it's the apartment complex's no-pets policy. Johnson had to leave her beloved Chihuahua, Thumper, with her daughter.

But that aside, Johnson said she's liking her Oak Court apartment just fine.

"This is my home now," she said, smiling broadly.
The Palo Alto Housing Corporation is still taking applications for units and can be reached at (650) 321-9709 or A grand opening is planned for Tuesday, May 24 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at [email protected]

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