Turning Hospitals Into Affordable Housing

Here’s an item from last week’s CBRM council session on affordable housing that I really wanted to follow up on:  Deputy Mayor (and District 2 Councilor) Earlene MacMullin proposed the municipality look into the possibility of turning the Northside General Hospital, scheduled for closure and demolition, into affordable housing — “adaptive reuse,” as it’s known.

MacMullin said her understanding was the budget for demolition was $7 million and I have to say, the notion of using that money to create rather than destroy something is appealing — as is avoiding sending huge quantities of construction waste to the dump.

Northside General Hospital

Northside General Hospital. (Source: Nova Scotia Health)

MacMullin told the Post‘s Ian Nathanson:

From what I’ve heard, there’s no plan for that building other than a demolition. And when you’re hearing about a lack of future student housing between Cape Breton University and the new location for the NSCC, well, here’s a building that could possibly do well in accommodating people. It’s close to amenities, close to health care, it’s on a major bus route. I just wanted to put a bug in the ear of staff on that.

She also said that the suggestion was meant to get people thinking about repurposing other buildings in the community (other councilors immediately brought up the question of schools).

But can you turn hospitals and schools into housing? I was a little concerned after hearing what New Dawn’s Erika Shea had said, during that same meeting, about being unable to renovate the Seton Elementary School in Sydney Mines in such a way that it would seem less “institutional.”

So I did some research (oh, who am I trying to kid — I’ve been googling, dear readers, googling) and I’ve found some really interesting examples of hospitals and schools being turned into not just housing — because there are lots of examples of them being turned into luxury condos — but affordable housing. And I meant to write about a few projects, but as is my wont, I got rather too deeply into this first one, so I’m going to focus on it.


Linda Vista Hospital, Los Angeles

In 1905, the Sante Fe Railroad built a hospital for its workers in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. (It was not the only hospital built by the railroad — see this interesting collection of post cards.) The original, Moorish-style building overlooked Hollenbeck Park and had its own cows, chickens and gardens. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy:

The 190-bed hospital thrived in its early days and quickly grew into a campus. Several expansions in the following years added a north wing, kitchens, dining facilities, and a southern dormitory wing to house the hospital’s nursing trainees. The 1938 main building replaced the original 1905 building that was lost in a fire.

The Boyle Heights neighborhood began to decline in the 1970s and in 1980, the railway sold the hospital to a managed healthcare company which changed its name to the Linda Vista Community Hospital. Things seem to have gone downhill quite precipitously from there and in 1991, the hospital closed.

For the next 20 years, the building stood empty, although it did enjoy its 15 minutes of fame (and then some) as a film location, appearing in a number of movies, TV shows and (this is for my youngest sister) Duran Duran’s Falling Down video. It also developed a reputation for being haunted. And, due to a “lack of proper supervision,” it “fell into serious disrepair.”

Then, in 2011, the 4.2-acre complex was purchased by AMCAL Multi-Housing Inc., a private sector housing developer that partnered with East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), a non-profit community development corporation, to rehabilitate it.

AMCAL turned the listed heritage properties within the Linda Vista complex — the main hospital building and the nurses’ dormitory — into 120 affordable apartments for seniors (97 of which are studios). The project was accomplished in two stages at a cost, according to AMCAL, of $38.2 million.

(A note on that price tag: this was a very high-end development. Percival Vaz, the CEO of AMCAL, says in the video I’ve posted below that because it was such a “high-profile” project, they decided to build it to “gold standard.”)

When I was looking for pictures of the finished development, all I could find was photos of the, admittedly beautiful, common areas and I was beginning to suspect the living quarters were cramped — especially when I read that some were redesigned patient rooms. But the California Preservation Foundation, in its description of the project, says:

With generously scaled corridors preserved, historic patient rooms were easily redesigned as apartments because of their essentially residential-scaled spaces, with windows providing ample natural light.

And the units you can see in the video certainly look light and spacious:


Writing about the development in a publication called Affordable Housing Finance (because of course there’s a publication called Affordable Housing Finance), Donna Kimura says:

Treatment areas and other parts of the hospital proved challenging but have been converted into a game room, a library, and other uses. In one move, the developers removed a portion of the roof in the middle of a rear wing to create a three-story atrium. Each floor maintains its own character with different furniture styles, artwork themes, and color schemes.



If you are like me, you watched that video and are wondering if apartments in that beautiful complex could actually be affordable. But they do, actually seem to be affordable. Here’s Kimura again:

Located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, the area has about 47,000 senior households that earn less than $35,000 per year, with many spending more than half of their income on housing, according to AMCAL. The Linda Vista development helps ease that pressure, serving seniors earning 30% to 60% of the area median income. In addition, 25% of the units are reserved for Housing for Health households, a Los Angeles County Department of Health Services program that provides housing opportunities coupled with supportive services to homeless, high utilizers of the health-care system.

(Kimura, by the way, puts the cost of the project at $47.7 million and I can’t explain the discrepancy between her number and the one quoted by AMCAL.)

ProBuilder, an industry publication, puts the rents at the Hollenbeck between $744 and $2,195/month.

The Hollenbeck Terrace website provides some information about rent levels and income limits and states that it accepts “Section 8” vouchers (if you watched the Netflix series Maid, you’ll know why this matters.)

Basically, I couldn’t find anything online decrying the development as unaffordable, and although I may find such a piece minutes after I publish this article, I’m going to take a chance and say that Hollenbeck Terrace does seem to offer affordable housing to low-income seniors, defined as people 55 (!) and over. (I’m not, by the way, saying the Northside General should be converted into affordable seniors’ housing; that just happens to be the purpose of the conversion project I’m exploring.)



Financing for the Hollenbeck Terrace project came from a number of sources, but most of these sources can be traced to government — and specifically, to the US federal government, which funds the low-income housing tax credit and the historic tax credit (both of which were transformed, in this case, into tax credit equity, meaning, the developer assigned the rights to claim the tax credits to another party — in this case the MUFG Union Bank — in exchange for an equity investment, i.e. cash). The Neighborhood Stabilization Program is a federal program under the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Los Angeles’ Affordable Housing Trust Fund is funded by the city, but also from federal sources. The Quimby Fee (which developers must pay in lieu of including park and recreation facilities in their projects) was waived by the City of Los Angeles.

Hollenbeck Terrace Financing


In other words, the funding for this project was overwhelmingly public, so the question that occurs to me is, why do you need a private developer in this mix? And I think the answer is, you don’t — government could undertake such a project directly or work with a non-profit. (You might say AMCAL brought valuable experience in adaptive re-use and housing development to the table, but that experience can be hired, it doesn’t have to be given an ownership stake in the project. No offense to AMCAL.)

The key, as Erika Shea said during her presentation to council about the Seton School (a presentation I found really interesting and covered last week) is the funding.

One final note. Writing about the Hollenbeck Terrace project in the Los Angeles Times in 2017, Phil Galewitz spoke to a consultant who made an interesting point:

Closing a hospital and converting it to another use is not exactly like renovating an old Howard Johnson’s, said Jeff Goldsmith, a health industry consultant in Charlottesville, Va.

“A hospital in a lot of places defines a community — that’s why it’s so hard to close them,” Goldsmith said.

As Galewitz notes, residents “often have an emotional attachment to hospitals where family members were born, cured or died.” He says “changeovers,” like conversions to affordable housing, can be “welcome, particularly when hospitals have been long closed, their buildings left empty and dilapidated.”

Maybe a “changeover” to affordable housing would also be welcome when the alternative is demolition of a community landmark.

Deputy Mayor MacMullin is right, I think, this is a conversation worth having.