Two apartment complexes under development in the region are designed to look like something they're not: regular apartment complexes.
EAH Housing of Marin County will build Archway Commons in Modesto and Bella Avena in Turlock. Together, they will offer nearly 300 units of low- income housing.
The projects will offer a community center, pool and computer lab with after-school support for kids, amenities not always associated with low-income complexes.
"It's our goal to build affordable housing that looks as good as -- or better than -- market-rate housing," said Mary Murtagh, chief executive of the nonprofit EAH.
Modesto's project, at Carver Road and Ninth Street, is expected to break ground within a year. Bella Avena (the name means "Beautiful Oats" in Italian -- a nod to the area's agriculture history) is set to begin construction in early 2011, with occupancy the next April. It's at 500 W. Linwood Ave.
Housing Program Services Manager Maryn Pitt said Turlock chose EAH for Bella Avena because it shares the city's philosophy: "Affordable housing should bring the neighborhood up, not down."
EAH, which was founded in 1968, has 77 projects in 17 California counties and four in Hawaii. Some were built by EAH while the nonprofit took over and remodeled other locations.
Murtagh said some ask why EAH builds new housing when so many foreclosed homes are available. She pointed out that there are many people who can't afford rent on a single-family home but can afford rent in one of her company's projects. EAH has taken over some bankrupt properties, but competition for them is intense, she said.
Most of the complexes have long waiting lists. In several areas, there is a long wait just to get on a list.
It's easy to see why: Projected rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Bella Avena is $285 per month, Pitt said.
Each complex is run independently and has a different set of criteria for residents. In general, they must earn 80 percent or less of the area's median income.
Murtagh said applicants are carefully screened and managers are watchful to make sure only approved tenants are in the apartments.
EAH finances its projects through a combination of redevelopment funds, grants and tax credits issued to large corporations who give money to low-income housing. The remaining costs -- about 20 percent -- come through a more traditional mortgage that must be repaid. That's where the rent collected from residents goes.
Getting the money is a competitive process, and with the downturn in the economy there aren't as many companies looking for tax credits.
For the cities, the investment yields an immediate return.
"This is a $28 million project for us," Pitt said. "We're putting in $4 million."
EAH pledged to hire local workers to build the complexes and serve as live-in managers.
The company's projects in Corte Madera and Larkspur, both in Marin County, are examples of its building philosophy. They are well-maintained, energy-efficient, and offer playgrounds and computer labs.
Murtagh said EAH put in the West Coast's first such lab in a low-income complex when it took over an older building in Richmond several years ago.
"The Richmond school district was in a state of total disaster," she said. "This was at the beginning of personal computers, and it was becoming really clear that if you didn't have a computer you wouldn't be able to compete."
She worked with the state Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allowed EAH to remodel a three-bedroom apartment and install computers.
"We thought, 'What if nobody shows up?' " Murtagh said. "But at 3:15, we could hear footsteps pounding up the stairs."
That little project led to labs and homework clubs at all the complexes EAH builds. "HUD picked it up, but I officially get street cred for having come up with that," Murtagh said.
A 24-unit development in Larkspur replaced a shuttered lumberyard. It took a lot of work, but local officials are happy with the resulting Drake's Way complex.
"It was a long struggle," Larkspur Mayor Joan Lundstrom told the Marin Independent Journal. "(It's) a very difficult site. It was part of an old quarry. They had to blast out some rock. The finances in making various deadlines were always a big challenge.
"We're all really, really, really proud of it."
At the San Clemente complex, EAH communications director Mike Daley said, "There's a market-rate condominium complex on the corner, and we get people coming here, asking how much to buy a place."
That's the kind of mistake officials hope people make in Modesto and Turlock.
Murtagh isn't shy about her goal.
"I want to change the world, one unit at a time."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.