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Former Church Provides Sanctuary for Lower-Income Seniors

Published: 5/23/2018

“Our family here—it’s a family—is like a quilt; we’re like a woven fabric placed together.”

This is how Jennifer, one of the handful of seniors living at Immanuel Place and a former denizen of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles, describes the group of “loving misfits” who have thankfully escaped the homelessness that is afflicting our senior population.

What was once a slowly dilapidating, empty space, the Immanuel Church in Bluff Heights has not only returned to its former glory through a detailed restoration process but has also been adaptively reused so the space could create much-needed affordable housing for seniors.

Those folks now call the building, built in 1922 and opened to its residents this past September, home. Surrounded by restored stained-glass windows, community space that includes a library with a fully restored 1963 Aeolian Skinner organ towering above the books, and details that show this is one of the more masterful examples of adaptive reuse in Long Beach, Immanuel Place proves that it is a particularly shining illustration of how affordable housing can both provide supply to demand while preserving local culture and history.

“We all have different stories, different backgrounds, coming through all walks of life—we’re like a family, with intricacies,” Jennifer said. “Everything from former business owners to former addicts—but we do our best to understand all of our stories and continue creating a life worth living.”

Kathleen was one of those former business owners and one of Immanuel’s most eloquent critics of society’s tendency to malign folks experiencing homelessness—and she is not only deeply grateful to be a part of a community that provides stability, but also notes that her own perspective shifted when her needs became more and more challenging as she grew older.

“I never thought I would be someone who needs a housing voucher—never,” Kathleen said. “After I was about to cash in on my real estate investment to retire, I was sued… I lost everything. If I can lose everything I worked 50 years to obtain in the course of a few months, then anybody can.”

And while the seniors might not agree on everything—it is not uncommon to find them gathered in the common area, arguing over everything from rent control to personal responsibility in society—they do agree on one thing: without Immanuel Place, they would have no stability in their lives.

Thomas Safran, chairman of affordable housing developer Thomas Safran & Associates and leader of the project, understood this when he decided to tackle the project nearly seven years ago.

"There were several items that simultaneously made us realize this was an important redevelopment project to take on to provide beautiful and unique housing for extremely low-income seniors formerly experiencing homelessness, as well as those with special needs,” said Andrew Gross, President of Thomas Safran & Associates. “We met with tons of people including John Thomas [chair of The Long Beach Community Investment Company and a member of the Bluff Heights Neighborhood Association] and we began to move forward to acquire the property.  We met with the City about financial assistance and that’s how we began to transform this beautiful church into beautiful new homes for residents who need it most.”

With the housing crisis spreading across the state—and a particular shortage in affordable housing for veterans and seniors—the developer received many more applicants than units available.

“Over 400 people applied to live here,” said Lizbeth Ramirez, one of the managers who works daily at Immanuel Place.

To cater to those most in need, the residents selected to live at Immanuel Place are seniors who have formerly experienced homelessness, those with special needs, and extremely low-income seniors earning between 30% and 60% of the average median income.

“That’s why we’re lucky,” said Lenore, an elder woman who had been in and out of housing before reaching stability at Immanuel. “This place allows us to still be ourselves—that’s what I like about it. You go to other senior living places and they all look the same and feel the same…The high ceilings make it feel spacious. The idea that we have a case manager so we can address issues. We have activities…We sometimes call it ‘the Immanuel Spa.’”

And other organizations are already lauding the project.

Along with earning a Built It Green Platinum certification thanks to its sustainable and energy-efficient design and utilization, Immanuel Place was also honored with the National Affordable Housing Management Association (NAHMA)’s 2017 Vanguard Award, for demonstrating that “the affordable multi-family industry is and must be creative and innovative if such exceptional properties are to be built given the financial and other challenges to development.”

NAHMA went on to call the project a prime example of how public-private partnerships required to develop today’s affordable housing can bring about astounding results while “sharing ideas for unique design and financing mechanisms with industry practitioners to further stimulate creative development in the affordable multi-family industry” is an essential aspect to the success of Immanuel Place.

As for the future, Safran and his crew of leaders won’t be taking on any other churches—but they are hopeful that this project will prove to be an example of how housing organizations can uniquely examine spaces that might not seem, off-the-cuff, fit for housing.

“We are not currently renovating any other churches,” Gross said. “But around the country, there are buildings that were formerly churches, post offices, libraries, schools, firehouses, and the like—and they are being redeveloped into housing. Every day we have projects we’re working on to build high-quality, affordable housing for those in need, especially low-income seniors, special needs families, and those who have formerly experienced homelessness.”

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