SLO housing application filed for independent, mentally ill tenants

This rendering shows the Bishop Street Studios housing project that Transitions-Mental Health Association has proposed on Bishop Street in San Luis Obispo.
This rendering shows the Bishop Street Studios housing project that Transitions-Mental Health Association has proposed on Bishop Street in San Luis Obispo.

A housing permit application has been filed with the city of San Luis Obispo for a project that would replace a long-vacant orphanage with 34 new affordable rental units for adults living with mental illness.

The San Luis Obispo-based nonprofit organization Transitions-Mental Health Association submitted its application for the project with the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee and Architectural Review Commission on Friday.

Those city bodies will decide whether to approve plans for the facility, at 1600 Bishop St., above Johnson Avenue.

Transitions-Mental Health intends to convert the old county-owned Sunny Acres orphanage and juvenile detention facility, left vacant since the 1970s, into 13 housing units with another 21 units built on the 1.3-acre site.

The proposed project, called Bishop Street Studios, would provide eight studios and 26 one-bedroom apartments with sizes ranging from 308 to 537 square feet.

I think this type of housing will be extremely beneficial for someone like me.

Donna, county resident coping with mental illness

The tenants would know how to live independently with conditions that have progressed through case management and social services. They would pay 30 percent of their monthly income under TMHA’s guidelines for subsidized housing.

“Bishop Street Studios is a remarkable opportunity to take an esteemed building that has been left in disrepair and turn it into a valuable community resource,” said Shannon McOuat, TMHA’s community outreach manager.

On Friday, Transitions-Mental Health Association CEO Jill Bolster-White said that submitting the application was the culmination of a year of hard work to make the project possible.

“There has been a lot of speculation regarding who would occupy these apartments,” Bolster-White said. “TMHA runs a full spectrum of housing programs and Bishop Street Studios would be for our most self-sufficient mental health clients.

“These are men and women who may have struggled in the past, but are making great progress on their recovery journey. They know how to live independently, but they are simply shut out of the high-priced housing and rental market. A project like Bishop Street Studios will provide these clients with a permanent housing option, which is so critical.”

Bishop Street Studios would have a manager who lives in one of the units.

Tenants will receive a variety of supportive services such as case management, peer-to-peer guidance, or supported employment, McOuat said.

“We are particularly excited that the lobby of the old Sunny Acres building will serve as a community room that will host various support groups and workshops on independent living for our tenants,” she said.

Bishop Street Studios would be just down the street from county medical facilities, where its tenants receive the bulk of their services, said Claire Clark, TMHA’s special projects coordinator.

“Being close by services, as well as grocery and drug stores, is a huge plus particularly for people who don’t have vehicles,” she said.

TMHA owns and manages 116 beds in the city of San Luis Obispo, for which it has long waiting lists.

A client in TMHA’s program, a 52-year-old Morro Bay woman named Donna, who asked that her last name not be published, said her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder has made it difficult for her to maintain a full-time job for many years.

Yet, through counseling and medication, she has significantly improved her coping abilities while dealing with mood swings and managing stress, she said.

Donna lives with her parents and works for TMHA as a MediCal enrollment and renewal counselor, helping mentally ill and homeless clients sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Her success with taking on greater responsibilities has steadily increased during the two years she’s worked at Transitions.

But she is not allowed to earn more than $1,130 per month under her federal disability income guidelines.

“I think this type of housing will be extremely beneficial for someone like me,” Donna said. “It’s going to be very helpful in that it will be an affordable healing and supportive community. People have everyday challenges with mental illness, and this housing will offer an infrastructure of support and fellowship.”

Donna said her parents are getting older and she’s looking to set up the next stage of her life to live independently. Affording a Morro Bay home isn’t an option.

Men and women who may have struggled in the past, such as Donna, but are capable of living independently because of progress on their recoveries would qualify for the Bishop Street Studios housing.

The county, as the landowner, has entered into an option agreement to sell the acreage to Transitions-Mental Health for $100 under certain conditions, such as that the organization secures financing and permits for the project. Transitions has already paid the county $1,000 for an option on the property.

We have been a very good neighbor based on our other projects.

Claire Clark, TMHA’s special projects coordinator

The nonprofit will seek to finance the site through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which offers incentives for investors to develop affordable housing targeting low income Americans. TMHA is partnering with the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo to secure the financing and help manage construction of the project. The work will include preserving the building’s facade and removing asbestos.

“Just imagine the hope it represents for those in need, and the peace it offers to family members, knowing that their loved one will have an affordable, supportive place to live,” said Scott Smith, HASLO executive director.

The coordinators anticipate approval by the end of the year and to complete the building in a few years.

Clark said they expect some neighborhood opposition, but they have already met with some nearby residents to discuss project details and work to accomodate any concerns, as well as to disspell miconceptions about mental illness.

“We have been a very good neighbor based on our other projects,” Clark said.