Case Study

The Aspire in Riverside, CA

6 min read

Housing Homeless College Students in California

Is a project in Riverside, CA to provide housing for a population as specific as homeless college students something that is replicable? “Absolutely,” says Rochelle Mills, president and chief executive officer of developer Innovative Housing Opportunities (IHO). “It’s replicable and it’s scalable. This is something all communities should be doing.”

“We’re hoping we can replicate it not only in our region but across the state. There has been a need to address the increasing student homelessness problem,” adds Emilie Dang, Community Impact and Programs director at IHO, citing recent legislation prioritizing student housing.

The concept for the project, The Aspire, with 33 units currently under construction, came from the realization that a high percentage of youth aging out of foster care were becoming homeless. IHO is partnering with the city of Riverside (an Inland Empire municipality east of Los Angeles), the county of Riverside and Riverside Community College District to develop the new homes.

“This was a wonderful opportunity to partner with the city of Riverside,” says Mills. She notes the city has leased them the land that The Aspire will be on, with a covenant to keep the improvements affordable for at least 55 years.

“The County of Riverside is contributing Section 8 vouchers because without those project-based housing vouchers we would not be able to reduce the rents to give these residents the support they need to get on solid footing. The community college district has also partnered to bring in academic counseling and supportive services.”

Total development cost is expected to be about $25 million, including Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity through Redstone Capital. Banner Bank supplied the construction loan. In all, there are seven layers of financing in the capital stack.

Federal tax credit equity proceeds were $9.9 million, while state tax credit equity proceeds came to $8.9 million.

There is a robust set of services planned for the students, whose one-bedroom apartments will range up to 500 square feet.

Services will include “tailored educational, health and wellness, and workforce development services and programming, such as academic counseling with the community college district, and case management services,” says Dang.

“We are contracting with Riverside University Health System to provide on-site case managers who will support residents with mental and behavioral health services, including connecting young people to resources to address their needs,” she says.

Food Insecurity is a Problem
“Food insecurity tends to be high for students and transitional-age youth. So, they’ll get food resources and transportation. Fortunately, Riverside Community College is not too far from The Aspire.”

There will be other resources available from outside the college, too.

“We’re also partnering with local agencies in the area and the county, including California Family Life Center. We want to make sure we’re equipping all the residents with the tools they need to be successful. For those who are looking at career development, there is a drop-in resource center where they can connect to workforce development and training, whether it’s resume building, interviewing or preparing for employment opportunities,” says Mills.

Mills is hoping this experience will be transformative for residents. “We hope we can put them in a position where they can blaze trails, where they can, as we say, ‘move in, move up, move forward and then reach back,’” she says.

“Because if we can get them to the point where they’re doing well and want to serve as a peer mentor then they have much more credibility than someone like a developer, like us, or a case manager that is telling them what to do. They share that lived experience.”

Income levels for this project are very low. “It is 20 percent of the area median income, people who are living on Social Security or Medicaid, at the very deepest affordability,” Mills says.

“They may not be on the streets, but they are definitely housing insecure. That’s who The Aspire is targeting. And in partnering with the community college district, the goal is that they can help identify and direct students into the housing application process. Thus, the units that will be available at the end of the year, may find their way to the students who are in their program.”

Priced Out of Market
People with incomes that low are not going to be able to find apartments at an average of $1,000 to $1,500 per month, Mills notes.

“If you have a few students trying to put their money together and move into a location, chances are a landlord will not allow that many people into a one-bedroom or studio apartment.”

The average cost to build one of these units is about $750,000 per door, Mills says. Of the difficulty in making an affordable project work, she says, “We have to be all things at all times to all people.”

In the end, “with a project like this, you’re just pleased to get it built, knowing that you can take 33 young people off the streets and hopefully provide a pathway for them to become independent,” says Mills.

The design mimics Spanish colonial architecture, like the local icon, the Mission Inn, something the developers knew would please many local residents.

Mills says, “One of the things that you can’t get away from in neighborhoods is their love of things fitting in. The Mission Inn is such a recognizable property and a source of local pride. People want to make sure that we’re not building something contemporary that ruins the character of the neighborhood.”

Balconies for All Units
The design includes considerations for the life experiences of homeless people, Dang says. All the units have open spaces and balconies, for instance, for those who might feel claustrophobic in small spaces – an amenity valued in market-rate apartments as well.

“For young people who have been chronically homeless, you want them to feel safe, welcome and part of a community. The way that you design space is so important in terms of making sure that they feel valued.”

Providing mentoring for these students will be important, Mills feels. “We’ve had discussions on how we can connect them with mentors who have similar lived experiences so that they can learn and aspire to also be successful. Just like those who have gone through this system, and were able to move further, whether it’s continuing to a four-year university, or moving to a career.”

Mills feels projects like The Aspire provide the ability to build a continuum of success, “helping people recognize the opportunities they have. You’re always going to find those who probably will not be able to make that adjustment. But, in this case with The Aspire, with its focus on a relationship or partnership with the community college district, we’re looking at ways of looking toward the future.

“We’re looking at using these apartments as the launchpad for the rest of their lives.”

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.