La Quinta Sets a New Green Standard for Work Force Housing

The City of La Quinta won the Award for Excellence for this project in the Housing Programs and Innovations category of the 2009 Helen Putnam Award program. For more about the award program, visit

Vista Dunes Courtyard Homes is the nation’s largest multi-family affordable work force housing project to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification in the LEED for Homes program. Located in the City of La Quinta, a community of more than 43,000 in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, Vista Dunes offers a best practice model that other communities can replicate.

Transforming Blight

The 9.5-acre site was formerly a 92-space mobile-home park that had become overcrowded, with failing infrastructure and many dilapidated homes. City staff often received complaints of noise and illegal activities at the park and began seeking ways to remedy a blighted property while preserving the supply of affordable housing.

The city acquired the park after protracted negotiations. Four hundred residents lived at the park, and comparable units in the area were in limited supply. Waiting for comparable housing to become available extended the relocation schedule. During this time, the city increased relocation benefits to accommodate escalating housing prices, and the final cost of relocation was double the original budget.

The city successfully relocated all 92 households. Nearly half purchased single-family homes in the Coachella Valley with their relocation settlements, and two households moved back to live in the new development.

“A true testament to the success of the relocation process happened at the Vista Dunes groundbreaking,” says Assistant City Manager Doug Evans. “Many of the displaced families attended, made heartwarming speeches and provided family photos and mementos for a time capsule placed at the site.”

Incorporating Green Design Principles

During the design phase, the city discovered its design and building materials principles aligned with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification requirements, and city officials decided to pursue LEED Platinum certification. This required a closer review of Title 24 energy requirements, some additional durability measures and third-party verification.

“With respect to guiding design principles, the charge was simple,” says former La Quinta Redevelopment Agency Chair Tom Kirk. “The new development must respect the desert environment, be energy and water efficient, embrace sustainable building practices, be durable and easy to maintain and inspire new residents.”

Vista Dunes was scaled to fit in the surrounding neighborhood of upper-income single-family homes. Single-story homes were built with ample space between unit clusters; resident activities were focused inward.

Building setbacks were increased, and a large setback was established from Miles Avenue, a major arterial road. The design team consulted local fire and law enforcement agencies to identify community-oriented policing measures; these measures were incorporated into both the site and building design.

Attending to Details

Vista Dunes provides a stellar example of how green building and sustainability principles translate into practical application. The 80-unit multifamily work force housing community is open to households with incomes at 30 to 50 percent of area median income.

The homes are oriented to minimize solar gain during the summer. Deep overhangs shade south-facing windows, and landscaped trellises shade west-facing walls. Ventilation is enhanced by open light wells with operable windows that catch prevailing winds and draw rising heat from the interiors. Photovoltaic solar panels reduce each home’s electric bill by approximately $730 a year, while radiant barrier roof sheathing reflects up to 50 percent of the sun’s energy and keeps homes cooler. Tankless water heaters eliminate the need to heat and store gallons of water. The roadways and sidewalks are light-colored concrete, which reduces heat gain and is more durable than asphalt, thus reducing maintenance costs.

Water conservation also features prominently as a design element. The landscaping uses drought-tolerant indigenous plants. Dual-flush toilets, low-flow, oxygenated shower heads and faucets and water-efficient front-loading washing machines save nearly 2 million gallons of water annually.

The project’s construction also employed green building and sustainability practices. Construction waste recycling achieved an 87 percent diversion rate. Vista Dunes used locally sourced, recycled and renewable materials; low- and no-volatile organic compound paints and sealers; and enhanced filtration in HVAC systems. Concrete block carports and the use of steel posts and beams for exposed elements exemplify the construction materials’ durability.

Addressing Quality-Of-Life Issues

The city partnered with national nonprofit developer and management firm National Community Renaissance (National CORE) and community-based organizations to give families living at Vista Dunes access to high-quality after-school programs that provide homework assistance, physical recreation, intergenerational mentoring, life skills activities and healthy snacks.

“Vista Dunes is quickly becoming a community hub and an example of sustainable, healthy neighborhoods where people thrive,” says National CORE Chief Executive Officer Orlando Cabrera.

Inspired by this achievement, the city adopted a green building ordinance and building practices. The city is pursuing LEED Silver certification for its next work force housing development, which will also be affordable for 217 very low-income family households.

Contact: Doug Evans, assistant city manager, La Quinta; phone: (760) 777-7031; e-mail:

This article appears in the March 2010 issue of Western City
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