Action for Community Wellbeing: Developing Affordable Housing and Small Businesses

February 23, 2022 — Highlight, The Big Picture

By Julie Rusk and Tara Barauskas

A project destined to open later this year will bring new affordable housing together with neighborhood-owned small businesses to the heart of one of Santa Monica’s most vibrant and historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The City of Santa Monica is highly invested in advancing the wellbeing of its community and neighbors. A wonderful example of this was its nomination as a 2019 NewCities Wellbeing Cities Award finalist for its groundbreaking work defining, measuring, and actively improving community wellbeing. Its work spans a multi-dimensional framework and incorporates wellbeing data to advance policies, programs, and partnerships. For Santa Monica, this commitment to “wellbeing in action” must be deeply rooted in a commitment to racial equity, affordable housing, and economic opportunity for all.

The Community Corporation of Santa Monica, or Community Corp, as it is locally known, is a Santa Monica community treasure founded in 1982. It manages over 90 properties with 1,800 affordable homes supporting over 4,000 people in architecturally significant and environmentally sustainable housing. In March of 2019, Community Corp acquired a property that was the former site of Mt. Herman Baptist Church, and before that, the site of a neighborhood-serving Black-owned business.

Pico Neighbors to the Front
The property, located at 1819 Pico Boulevard, is situated in Santa Monica’s Pico neighborhood, the most racially, ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse in the city. Like many communities across the United States, the Pico neighborhood has been historically disadvantaged throughout multiple levels of government action. One of the most detrimental was the 1960s construction of the 10 Freeway to connect downtown Los Angeles with the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. By design, the 10 Freeway construction displaced hundreds of people via eminent domain, cut through the community, and eliminated generational community wealth-building opportunities.

A number of efforts have emerged in Santa Monica over the past several years to right the historic and ongoing systemic disadvantages in Pico, including a proposed Right to Return policy for those most impacted by the 10 Freeway construction. As a part of this movement, Community Corp wanted to commemorate the 1819 Pico property’s significance to the community, in particular to the Black neighborhood members who frequented the space. The project was named Brunson Terrace, in honor of Vernon and Donald Brunson who were the first African American brothers to be born in Santa Monica in the early 1900s. Vernon Brunson would eventually become a well-known architect in the community.

The Pico Wellbeing Project was used to engage the community in land use and neighborhood planning from the time the property was purchased. This neighborhood engagement provided the backdrop for many community conversations and meetings with a significant focus on the holistic needs and assets of the Pico community. Many desired to see themselves on Pico Boulevard, a call for representation and access to the economic engine of Santa Monica. Neighbors were clear in their message: in addition to affordable housing, there must be a renewed and deepened commitment to neighborhood-owned, neighborhood-operated, and neighborhood-serving small businesses.

The affordable housing that’s being constructed will target low-income households earning 30-80% of the Area Median Income for the County of Los Angeles and promote the health and wellbeing of the residents through several intentional design features. The building will be all-electric, with 1, 2, and 3 bedroom units to accommodate multiple household types. Features to promote resident wellbeing will include high indoor air quality, outdoor landscaped community spaces, a rooftop garden, and an emphasis on natural air and light.

Affordable Housing & Marketplace for Community Wellbeing

One of the zoning requirements of fronting the major thoroughfare of Pico Boulevard is ground-floor commercial space. In addition to providing 48 units of 100% affordable housing, Brunson Terrace was planned with 4,000 square feet of commercial space for a community marketplace and a locally owned neighborhood café.

Figure 1. 1819 Pico Blvd Rendering Facing Pico Blvd.

The yet-to-be-named community marketplace is being created by, of, and for the Pico community and surrounding residents. Several community workshops and a survey informed the values that should be reflected in the space. Streetlet, an innovative company that supports and promotes small business entrepreneurship, will help curate the space. A community stakeholder committee will create a request for proposals for the small businesses that may occupy the space and will select its name and décor. The neighborhood entrepreneurs will be drawn from a range of sources including from the more than 50 engaged community leaders who have led Wellbeing Microgrant projects over the past few years. The marketplace will be dynamic and diverse and will feature both fixed and rotating spaces that will engage the community and be a bright, vibrant space to incubate new businesses.

Alongside the marketplace, small-business owner Robbie Jones will create Jus’Family Coffee Bar with the goal of bringing back the community feeling of a previous era on the property. She will offer art that reflects social justice themes and provide gathering space for neighbors, organizations, and families in a welcoming environment. We anticipate that both the café and marketplace will collaborate on creating community events to enliven the Pico neighborhood and build a community for all.

What began with neighborhood advocacy for local spaces and businesses that serve community needs and build on community assets, we hope will grow into a community hub with the potential to boost local wellbeing. By prioritizing the concerns, needs, and assets of actual residents, we hope Brunson Terrace will contribute to a local sense of belonging, and help keep community members tied to the area.

We believe that a city that supports the wellbeing of its residents is a city that thrives. With Brunson Terrace, Santa Monica takes action on both housing and economic opportunity – two issues that hit squarely at the heart of wellbeing.

Brunson Terrace is currently under construction and projected to be complete by the end of 2022. The project is financed by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, loans from Bank of America, and significant funding from the City of Santa Monica.

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