• The entry courtyard is shaded by old oaks, and a mural by artist Cruz Ortiz enlivens a wall. - photo by Saul Jerome San Juan

Lucero, a new affordable housing development in South Austin, shows how designers can slip some poetry into a tight budget.

Architect Bercy Chen Studio
General Contractor Weis Builder
Civil Engineer Davcar Engineering Services
MEP Engineer P.E. Services
Structural Engineer SCA Consulting Engineers

For a panoramic view of Austin’s construction boom, head to the leasing office at the Lucero Apartments. The complex, designated as affordable housing, sits on one of the highest points in South Austin, its windows and balconies looking north toward downtown. Designed by Austin firm Bercy Chen Studio for Dallas-based developer Eureka Holdings, Lucero shows how a design firm can work with basic elements to create a more-than-basic place to live. It’s also a primer on the forces that shape the view, including the financing mechanisms and developer incentives that make affordable housing possible — or don’t. 

Lucero’s 173 units, completed in 2016, are Phase One of the redevelopment of Oak Creek Village, a 9-acre low-density affordable housing development recognizable for its shingled mansard roofs. Eureka Holdings acquired the property back in 2007. (Lesson One, from Harris Block, Eureka’s head of acquisitions: “Never let a recession go to waste.” According to the Austin American-Statesman, Eureka now owns a significant chunk of East Austin, including the Mt. Carmel Village apartments, another low-density affordable housing development.) Bercy Chen has worked with Eureka on a number of multifamily projects, and principal Thomas Bercy, Assoc. AIA, says, “They’re good at figuring out where density can happen, and they do this little switcheroo — stop leasing, move people around, build higher density.” Phase Two renovated 65 existing units for homeless veterans. As of now, the units sit waiting, their mansard roofs now boasting bright coats of rainbow-colored paint. 

Constraints on time, budget, and program shape most building projects, but for affordable housing, they’re particularly tight. The budget for Lucero, for example, was around $130 per square foot. For a willing architect, these constraints are a kind of “Chopped” challenge of design — sure, you can make a great béarnaise, but what can you do with a cabbage, an egg, and some salt? “We’ve been active in the multifamily domain for a while,” Bercy says, “and I think, socially, we really liked the idea of making compelling affordable housing and doing our part to address the shortage.” 

Bercy Chen began with massing, landing on a U-shaped building oriented toward downtown. At the commercial corridor of Oltorf Street, the building is four stories and a podium, stepping down to two stories toward the neighborhood — though by partially sinking the bottom units, the architects were able to achieve three stories at the low side. “We were thinking of a Mediterranean village,” says Bercy, “with the intimate scale and more humane spaces, the use of rooftops for a view and to catch a breeze.” This reference also explains the white stucco, which, judging from the number of workmen and ladders on site, is a maintenance headache. But, as Bercy points out, multifamily housing projects are second only to student housing in terms of maintenance demands, and with a lower budget for materials. The facades are articulated by 4-ft recesses that accommodate balconies, and by the use of brightly painted walls that double as wayfinding devices. “These walls are a reference to Barragán,” Bercy says. “We tried to get as much poetry as we could get in on the budget.” The colors also echo another poetry-on-a-budget project: artist-turned-mayor Edi Rama’s efforts to lift spirits in Tirana, Albania, by covering Stalinist grays with bright oranges, blues, and pinks. 

Light, air, and green have been the buzzwords of rational housing developments for more than a century, but in low-budget, high-density projects, light can often lose out to privacy. Here, the architects designed the corridors as unconditioned exterior walkways, pulling these away from the apartment walls to allow light to penetrate down to the lowest level. This strategy allows for glazing on two sides of each unit, which also helps with passive ventilation. The interior courtyard with its trees and barbecue grills shows signs of heavy use. Bercy notes with satisfaction that in most affordable housing developments, that area would be occupied by parking; instead, Lucero’s parking is buried under the slope, with access off the courtyard. The low-slung breezeway at the entry is decorated with a colorful mural by local artist Cruz Ortiz, who was aided by the apartments’ resident children. Beyond, cheerful yellow squares indicate the location of a splash pad. Instead of the proposed “Spanish steps” leading down from the splash pad to the courtyard, however, there is now a fence and a steep drop-off. Likewise, the sculptural steel entry pavilion that appears in project renderings was not built. As Bercy laments, in affordable housing, something always gets value engineered. 

But does it have to? For years now, Bercy Chen has been exploring how architects can assert more control over projects. Cambrian Development, the firm’s development arm, was awarded the same 9 percent Housing Tax Credit that funded Lucero and is now building a 65-unit multifamily structure with 55 affordable units. Especially with market-rate apartments in high demand, developers need an incentive to build affordable housing. The tax credits are one such incentive; a higher developer fee — some 15 percent, compared to 3–4 percent on a market-rate project — is another. For Bercy, the primary incentive is control. As an architect, he points out, he has a 10-year liability for whatever he draws, while a developer “basically has zero liability, because you create an entity for the project, and when the project is done, you dissolve the entity and that’s it.” He says: “If I’m going to get dragged into the lawsuit no matter what, I want total control. I want to say what that siding is, who’s installing it, what the flashing is.” 

Meanwhile, with Austin facing a projected affordable housing gap of 48,000 units, more incentives may be needed. Bercy points to the $250 million affordable housing bond that passed in 2018 as a start, but says that amount needs to be closer to $1.5 billion. Other incentives, like more density in exchange for affordability, along with a mechanism to guarantee affordability, are also needed. (The terms of the Housing Tax Credit require that funded projects maintain affordability for 40 years.) 

With many early-to-mid-career architects qualifying for affordable housing assistance (in Austin, as of 2019, 80 percent of the median family income — the Housing and Urban Development’s threshold for low-income status — was $52,850), there may also be a personal incentive for designers to get involved — or to change their business model to give themselves more than a view to work with. 

Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.

Leave a Comment