Affordable Housing Succeeds for Disabled

Friday July 04, 2003

When Erick Mikiten, the architect who designed the recently opened Adeline Street Apartments, set out for the Bay Area in the late 1980s to attend UC Berkeley’s graduate school for architecture, he didn’t count on the scramble ahead of him. 

He arrived a month before classes were to begin, believing that would give him enough time to find an apartment among the list given to him by the University’s housing department. But Mikiten, disabled due to a congenital disease that weakens the bones, learned quickly that the housing environment was different here than in his previous home in Texas. 

“Affordable housing was hard to find,” he said. “But affordable housing that was also accessible to the disabled was virtually impossible.” 

Mikiten finally did find a place—only days before the semester started—through a program by the city of Oakland that gave landlords money to remodel units to make them wheelchair accessible. But the place he landed—a studio that was converted from a basement—was far from ideal. The ceilings were a mere 6 feet 7 inches high and the floor area only about 400 square feet. On top of that, the unusual subterranean set-up meant the grade came up to four feet of the exterior wall, causing rain to leak into the apartment during most of the rainy season. 

“It was very oppressive,” said Mikiten, who continued to look for another apartment during the four years he lived in the Oakland unit. “I really learned how architecture makes a big difference.” 

Perhaps that experience is one of the things that has driven Mikiten, now an architect based in Emeryville, to develop some of the most innovative disabled housing developments in the nation. One of those projects is the newly opened Adeline Street Apartments, a 19-unit building that provides ground-floor retail and housing for a few dozen physically disabled people and their families. The residents were chosen by lottery from a list of hundreds of other Section 8 applicants. 

Aesthetically, the building rises above many built for this type of population. The exterior consists of cement board over gold bricks and tile, making for a durable facade, and includes deep overhangs and wood brackets at the eaves. The residential portion—the top two floors of the building—feels like an oasis from the urban grit found on the South Berkeley commercial corridor below. Large windows inside the units and the use of exterior walkways instead of enclosed hallways adds natural light, air and views of the bay and the eastern hills. A terrace on the second floor provides a community space, and planter boxes and pots filled with herbs including rosemary and sage—all placed at a low level—give residents an opportunity to garden. 

Mikiten said his experience living in his small Oakland studio inspired his design of the building’s two studio apartments, which have higher ceilings and larger windows than the rest of the units. “I wanted to make sure the studios didn’t get stuck in some corner,” he said. “Typically, architects will shove them into a little section to plug up a hole somewhere. I wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case here, because it’s so much harder to live in studios anyway. They’re so small and much more limiting.” 

Dan Sawislak, executive director of Resources for Community Development, the nonprofit housing developer of the project, said the development exemplifies the trend away from federally funded high rises, where same-size units are stacked onto each other, to smaller, community-friendly accommodations that get funding form a variety or sources. 

“Before, low-income housing buildings were not built to last,” he said. “There was a lot of concern about the materials being cheap. With this project, we used durable, sustainable materials, because we want to make sure we’re here for at least 50 years.” 

Donnaye Leonard-Jones and her partner moved out of their North Oakland apartment after being attacked and threatened because of their sexual orientation. The two had been homeless for about a year—living in shelters and in their car —before getting the Adeline Street apartment in March. Leonard-Jones, who suffers from lupus and fibromyalgia, listed the building’s more practical features: a garbage chute located on each floor, plenty of hand rails along the walkways and inside the units, lever door handles, door knobs and light switches that are wheelchair-level, bathroom mirrors that slant down, and kitchen and bathroom sinks that are open to allow wheelchairs to go underneath. 

Leonard-Jones lives with her partner, Leatha, on the third floor, which gives them a view of the bay. She said she pays $260 a month for the two-bedroom apartment. Tenants’ rent is generally a third of their income. 

“I like the views,” Leonard-Jones said. “I can see the sunrise and sunset.” She added that one of the best things about her new home is its location. “It’s close to everything—to both Children’s Hospital and Alta Bates, to Berkeley Bowl, to the pharmacy. It’s also close to free food and services provided by the two churches and drop-in centers in the area. You can catch a bus that takes you anywhere you need to go, and the BART’s just right there.” 

The project’s location is precisely what makes it a favorite of city planners and developers. Although it was difficult to convert the L-shaped lot into a uniquely designed housing project that accommodated many different sizes of units, the result is an infill housing development that brings economic activity to an area that many say is in dire need of revitalization. 

“This is a sort of a natural corridor to get reinvigorated by development of this scale,” Mikiten said, adding that he believes this development has sparked more renovation in the neighborhood. He has already been signed on to design facade and interior improvements to a building occupied by A Better Way, located on the same block as the Adeline Street Apartments on the corner of Fairview Street. 

“There are a lot of places around here that can be developed,” he added “They’re just spread out along the corridor.”