REEA New Construction Award: Las Abuelitas

by Chris Shreve

Several years ago, a delegation of grandparents raising grandchildren in Pima County, Arizona, approached the Primavera Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization. The grandparents were struggling, both economically and socially, with a situation many of them didn’t expect to be in.

“At Primavera part of our DNA is really trying to listen to and be responsive and be engaged with the community,” said Peggy Hutchison, CEO of the Primavera Foundation. “Over our 30-year history, programs have been developed because folks in the community have presented us with a challenge that connects up with our mission.”

In this case, the challenge was to develop housing that would meet the needs of these “kinship families,” who were looking for a community where they could share child care and enjoy cooperative programming for seniors and children.

When Hutchison began looking into models of kinship housing, she found surprisingly few, despite the fact that 5.8 million children in America are living in their grandparents’ homes, and more than 20% of them live below the poverty line. (In Arizona, 60,000 children are being raised by their grandparents, with 29% living in poverty.)

With a clear goal established, Primavera set out to find a location and raise funds for what would become Las Abuelitas, a new, energy-efficient, multifamily development designed by and for kinship families. Primavera first identified a number of blighted lots in the city of South Tucson and convinced the county to donate them. Next, they looked for funding, which came from several sources: HUD, through two separate grants (the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program); NeighborWorks America, an affordable housing nonprofit; Primavera donors; and bank loans.

A planning and design team that included grand- and great-grandparents identified the goals for the project at the start. Their ideas ranged from the necessary (a secure perimeter, meeting accessibility requirements) to the ideal (a big kitchen, private outdoor space). And because Primavera’s development policy is committed to green housing, energy efficiency was also a priority.

All photos courtesy of
Poster Frost Mirto, Inc.

Primavera chose the architecture firm Poster Frost Mirto, Inc., to design the 12 units of housing, a community building, and shared outdoor spaces, including a community garden and a basketball court. Construction lasted a year and was completed in November 2013.

Energy efficiency was built into all the residential units. Metal shade structures cover south-facing windows; walls and roofs have high insulation values; and every unit uses solar hot water. A rooftop PV system provides power for all units and the community center. All windows, appliances, and light fixtures are Energy Star rated.

The result is extremely efficient buildings. The residential units have an average Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score of 2.25. And four units scored zero or lower, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume.

Many of the efficiency features aren’t typically found in affordable housing, but Primavera wanted to demonstrate that energy efficiency can—and should—be for everyone. “We really wanted to have the focus be green, energy-efficient, long-term sustainability,” said Hutchison, “and we understood that would be a bigger investment on the front end, but that it would have a lasting impact both for the residents and for Primavera.”

When talking to funders, Hutchison said it’s important to educate them on the intangibles that don’t always show up in return-on-investment calculations, such as removing blighted lots that attract crime or building a community garden that provides fresh, healthy, and organic food. Even providing a building where residents can get volunteer tax help means more money will come back to the community.

“If somebody says, ‘Well, this costs so much,’” said Hutchison, “you can say, shouldn’t everyone have access to green—and energy efficiency—no matter what their income level? Shouldn’t everyone have access to accessibility that needs it? I think so.”