Meet the Developer Who Wants to Turn a Five-Story Santa Ana Building into an Artists' Colony

The revolution starts here
The revolution starts here
Julie Leopo

Stand in the vast, gutted second floor of the five-story building at 1666 N. Main St. in Santa Ana (the former home of this infernal rag), and one starts to dream. Right now, the tower hosts an ICE processing office, bankruptcy-lawyer offices, some real-estate companies and a mental-health facility for children. But Chris Maffris and Meta Housing want to turn this structure into an honest-to-goodness artists' colony—not the overpriced, overhyped, underserved official downtown version that's currently dead come nightfall.

The city's painters, sculptors, musicians, graphic designers and other creative types have long clamored for something like the Santa Ana Arts Collective (SAAC), the proposed adaptive reuse project that would transform the mini-skyscraper on Main Street into 64 units of affordable housing for local artists. And if all goes according to plan, construction on the $26.5 million endeavor will start later this year, with the first tenants moving in by late 2017.

All that's needed? A bunch of magic, luck and hoping. "We need to leverage the city's money, then we go after state tax credits and federal tax credits," says Maffris, senior vice president of Meta Housing, the development company that bought the building on Jan. 11 for $7.1 million. Without the tax credits, the proposed project is DOA.

If successful, Meta Housing will get a more than $1 million developer's fee from the city and the state. But Maffris swears he's not in this to get rich. "I sit on the Mayor of Oakland’s Affordable Artist Housing and Work Spaces Task Force," he says, "and the problem they're having up in Oakland is the city is gentrifying, there's a lot of money coming in. All those creatives who are there are getting pushed out, and it's almost too late. Some of that . . . is going on here. This [project] is interesting because it's an arts community, but it has permanent affordability, so its rents stay low permanently."

Developers promising big things and never delivering litter Santa Ana's recent history, but Maffris promises Meta is different. SAAC started last year after Brian Hendricks learned the city had up for grabs an affordable-housing lump sum made up of federal, state and local money. Hendricks has an almost 20-year history as a developer in Santa Ana, starting when he moved to the city's rough Minnie Street barrio as an employee of Kidworks, a nonprofit that assists in restoring at-risk neighborhoods.

"I've lived in the community and worked with youth and teens, [and] from there, [I] jumped into development," says Hendricks. "What I generally do in Santa Ana is I look for opportunities—a piece of land or a building—then I get an idea of what they can be."

The unused grant money, as well as a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the city for an affordable-housing project, got Hendricks excited. The Housing and Economy Recovery Act of 2008 allowed cities and developers to use federal low-income housing tax credits to finance affordable housing for specific groups, including, according to an amendment, "tenants . . . who are involved in artistic or literary activities." Hendricks and Meta set up a presentation that resulted in an approval by the Santa Ana City Council for a loan up to $4.7 million.

"We are very excited about the project," says City Councilman David Benavides. "We feel that it's a clear message to the community that we are in support of the arts and providing quality and dignified housing for the artists of Santa Ana. And the location of the project will be able to bridge the Bowers Museum and the Discovery Cube to the downtown."

Meta Housing's first battle for the state tax credit was on Sept. 29, 2015, when they and three other developers went before a local review panel composed of senior staff from Sana Ana's Planning and Building Agency, Keyser Marston Associations Inc., and housing staff from the city of Anaheim. Meta Housing came out on top with 95.2 points—well ahead of the other developers. Next, Meta submits its plans to the state—then waits.

"Right now, we're simply meeting with the city and architects on a regular basis in order to make sure we get entitled," says Maffris. "We're moving slower than anticipated and can't do much else until the city gives us the go-ahead."

Maffris and Hendricks recently walked through the halls of the Main Street building to point out the possibilities. In addition to 64 units that will range from studios to one-, two- and even three-bedroom townhomes, SAAC will have extensive amenities, including an art gallery, music room, performing-arts room, media lab, community garden and 32 spaces for bicycle parking. There are also plans to offer free on-site programs and services from EngAge, a nonprofit specializing in working with affordable-housing communities. Rent will range between $500 and $1,500 per month, and Maffris and Hendricks estimate that the rental income will be enough to cover the costs of both operating the project and making it sustainable for 55 years.

Artists who wish to live at SAAC need to complete a questionnaire and provide a résumé/portfolio, which an artist selection committee, whose members will be picked by Maffris, will then review. Applicants who pass the initial review will then enter a lottery, from which names will be drawn in a public setting, eliminating any suspicion of foul play.

Alicia Rojas, a local artist and co-founder of the Santa Ana Community Artist Coalition, is excited about the project, but she expressed concern regarding the makeup of the future committee. "The panel should be made up of people who are going to be fair," says Rojas, "and who aren't going to make a decision simply based on a portfolio, but also on what the artist has done for the community."

Despite Santa Ana's vibrant artist community, only six letters of support were sent to city officials, who asked residents for submissions they could show to state officials determining whether to grant SAAC the needed tax credit. Nevertheless, Maffris remains optimistic the project will happen—and spur similar efforts along the city's Main Street corridor.

"This is providing an opportunity to really preserve the artist community that's in Santa Ana," says Maffris. "Things have gotten more expensive, and it's gotten harder for people to afford the proper amount of rent. Hopefully, this will allow some of the artists who live in Santa Ana to have a place to stay and focus on the creative components of their life and to work on their craft."


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