Fremont Hears the Housing Needs of Deaf Seniors

Contact: Bill Cooper, housing project manager, City of Fremont; phone: (510) 494-4520; e-mail:

America’s population of senior citizens is not only increasing but expected to live longer as well. This trend presents new opportunities and challenges to providers of affordable housing. Some seniors are able to move in with relatives or into age-restricted facilities for care and support. Others cannot, and as a result become isolated and vulnerable as they grow older. The City of Fremont has taken a lead role in identifying housing needs for vulnerable and underserved members of the community, including deaf seniors, who are approximately 3 percent of Fremont’s population.

Due to hearing impairment, deaf seniors are at great risk of isolation from support services and social opportunities that could benefit them. Studies show that isolation can cause a rapid decline in health. Although senior housing often provides services and social opportunities, the lack of sign language competency in conventional senior housing facilities is a significant barrier to a deaf tenant’s ability to access services or interact socially.

Multi-Jurisdictional Collaboration Creates a Solution

Fremont, like neighboring San Francisco Bay Area cities, consistently ranks among the most expensive places to live in California. Most deaf senior households in Fremont are low income. The city recognized the need to provide affordable housing for this underserved community and built Fremont Oak Gardens. This affordable senior rental housing community consists of 50 apartments with design elements, amenities and aging support services for deaf and hearing-impaired seniors. It is the first and only affordable housing development of its kind in Northern California. It was made possible through a collaborative effort between the city, local champions of the deaf, the faith-based community, an affordable housing developer, regional jurisdictions, and public and private financers.

Since 1990, deaf community leaders have worked to bring housing for deaf seniors to the Bay Area. This effort was spearheaded by the Bay Area Coalition of Deaf Senior Citizens, a local advocate for the deaf community. This group, with the help of Satellite Homes and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, partnered with the city to develop Fremont Oak Gardens.

The collaboration between faith-based partner St. Anne’s Episcopal Church and affordable housing developer Satellite Homes was a win-win situation. St. Anne’s owned surplus land it was willing to sell to fund needed enhancements to its chapel. Likewise, Satellite Homes was able to obtain a reasonably priced development site. This special partnership paved the way for Fremont Oak Gardens, a model for future affordable housing developments.

A unique blend of funding made the realization of Fremont Oak Gardens possible. The following sources provided financial support for the $12.2 million development.

  • City of Fremont and Fremont Redevelopment Agency: $4.4 million for predevelopment, land acquisition and a development loan;
  • California Housing Finance Agency: a $2.7 million Special Needs Mortgage loan;
  • Bank of San Francisco Affordable Housing Program: a $200,000 grant;
  • Alameda County and the cities of Hayward, Livermore and Pleasanton: a combined total of $500,000 in federal loans and grants;
  • Private fundraising and sponsor equity: $300,000; and
  • Tax credit equity: $4.1 million.

Housing Designers Tailor Dwellings For Deaf Seniors

The project’s design team was headed by the architectural firm of Van Meter Williams Pollack. The team included a deaf architect from Martinez Architects and deaf-needs technology consultant Winter and Company Special Needs Studio.

The design team solicited input from the deaf community and neighboring residents. Both the project’s exterior and interior were developed with clear sight lines to facilitate signing. A village concept was employed by creating landscaped courtyards with facing apartments. The elevator has a window to allow for signing in case of malfunction. Technology-based design elements include strobe lights that flash when the phone or doorbell rings or if the fire alarm is activated. Each apartment has TTY (text telephone, also known as a telecommunications device for the deaf) and wiring for Internet connections. The project also includes a 3,600 square foot community building.

Local Assets Drawn Upon

Fremont is home to several learning institutions that serve or are sensitive to the needs of the deaf. The Oak Gardens model utilizes these assets to provide vital services to residents. The partnership was able to coordinate with Ohlone College (the local community college), the California School for the Deaf and the Gallaudet University Regional Center for volunteer sign-language interpreters, reading and other outreach services. The city’s Human Services Department and other entities also provide services. The comprehensive enhanced service plan in place at Fremont Oak Gardens can easily be replicated elsewhere.

Fremont Oak Gardens is the result of an engagement process with Fremont’s senior community that helped identify an underserved and vulnerable population. The project is a model of how multi-jurisdictional support and public and private resources can create solutions to address a special regional housing need. Fremont Oak Gardens demonstrates the regional nature of the project and shows that through collaboration and dialogue, local communities can come together to develop solutions to address their unique housing needs.

Due to Oak Gardens’ success, in June 2003 the City of Fremont sponsored its first summit of the city’s faith-based community and affordable housing developers. The summit provided an opportunity for participants to explore solutions to the housing crisis. Participants learned how St. Anne’s Episcopal Church improved its chapel by selling surplus property to create affordable housing, while the city was able to identify other churches that may have underutilized parcels.

Expanding Housing Supply And Affordability

Fremont Oak Gardens provides 50 new affordable homes for extremely low-, very low- and low-income seniors, most of whom are deaf or hearing impaired. The development provides long-term affordability through a 99-year recorded affordability covenant. At Fremont Oak Gardens, deaf seniors are part of a vibrant and supportive community and benefit from the elderly support services and social opportunities that enhance the quality of their lives.

The City of Fremont won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Housing Programs and Innovations category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

This article appears in the March 2006 issue of Western City
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