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This article first appeared in the PB June 2004 issue of Pro Builder.

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Affordable infill housing in any city presents a political challenge before the economics can even be addressed. That's why Seal Beach, Calif.-based infill specialist The Olson Co. views cities as the first customers it must serve and an assisted, affordable housing component as a politically necessary aspect of every project.

"Whenever we do developments targeted to median income and below, we keep two factors in focus: how we buy the land and design," says Olson chairman Steve Olson."

Artists Walk Lofts - Santa Ana, Calif.
This infill development is a classic example of how Olson works. It pulls together three separate downtown land parcels, totaling 2.7 acres, that the firm was able to acquire via a partnering relationship with the City of Santa Ana's redevelopment agency. The city owned the land and saw it as a critical component of plans to reinvigorate the area with housing.

"Santa Ana is about 72 percent Latino in population and has one of the most vibrant Latino business districts in Southern California," Olson says. The downtown has some historic buildings but lacks a strong residential component. Olson proposed a live/work combination of artists' studios at ground level with 83 residential lofts above. (That's a hefty 30.74 units per acre.)

Southern California design stars William Hezmalhalch Architects, Nestor + Gaffney Architecture and Ritner Architects designed the three phases. The targeting and marketing vision for the site is innovative, even a little funky. "The city wanted to expand its downtown arts district," Olson says. "We proposed targeting creative artisans - not just commercial artists, but everything from furniture designers to interior merchandisers and software engineers - people who would add vibrancy to the community."

The units range from 1,334 to 2,617 square feet and are priced from $257,990 to $584,990 (keep in mind that the median price of ownership housing in Orange County, Calif., is now well over $400,000). But included in Phase II are six affordable units of 1,502 square feet each, priced at $299,990.

"The combination of work space with living space is a tremendous advantage for this target market. They no longer have to lease studio space. They no longer have to commute," he says.

Olson marketed the affordable units right along with the rest. But those buyers had to meet monthly and annual income restrictions imposed by the city. (These units carry a second mortgage from the city that further reduces monthly payments.)

The Artists Lofts models opened in August of 2002 and sold out in about a year. Architecturally, the buildings shift through a range from mission style that captures the feel of the Old City Hall to a more modern style that still relates to it. "Artists and creative people really responded," Olson says. "We are a solution provider for the cities that make up our marketplace. We don't ever fight them. Santa Ana wanted housing and an extension of the arts district. We provided both."

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