Sunflower Hill breaks ground on affordable housing project for adults with special needs

'First-of-its-kind' complex on track to open next year outside downtown Pleasanton

Sunflower Hill leaders, elected officials and community supporters mark the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch project on May 16. (Photo by Little Rae Photography)

Beaming faces filled the audience on an unseasonably rainy afternoon as Tri-Valley nonprofit Sunflower Hill celebrated the ceremonial groundbreaking of its residential community for adults with special needs just outside downtown Pleasanton.

The 1.64-acre Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch affordable housing complex with apartments, community center and other amenities aims to create an inclusive and independent living opportunity for developmentally disabled residents -- a long under-served demographic across the state and country when it comes to affordable housing options.

"It's hard for me to fully describe to you how today feels for me, our board, staff, families and future residents," Susan Houghton, a founder and former board president for Sunflower Hill, said with tears in her eyes during the ceremony last week.

"And while the 31 units that will be constructed here will only make a small dent in the need for affordable housing, I have a dream that this is just the beginning," she said.

"We've seen senior living and planned communities for our elder populations pop up in just about every American city. Let's today follow the city of Pleasanton's lead and ask that this is duplicated everywhere for individuals with special needs. Right here, right now, is where it starts," Houghton added.

Scheduled for completion in spring 2020, Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch will mark another major milestone for the homegrown nonprofit founded some seven years ago with the lofty goal of shifting the paradigm for residential and vocational opportunities for people with special needs.

The housing project, the first of its kind in the Tri-Valley and a rarity in all of California, was lauded during the May 16 groundbreaking as a true public-private partnership for the good of the community.

"The city of Pleasanton is committed to being a part of the solution for the affordable housing crisis that is plaguing our entire state," Mayor Jerry Thorne said, adding that he hopes the Sunflower Hill project "will serve as a new gold standard for other local communities to follow and hopefully emulate across the region, the state and the United States."

Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley commended the project for "ensuring one of our most under-served populations has access to safe and permanent housing."

Of Sunflower Hill and its project partners, Miley said, "Your vision and critical leadership has the ability to transform lives and is of tremendous value to those we serve."

A joint venture with Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA), the Sunflower Hill project will feature a two-story apartment building with 31 units -- with one- and two-bedroom apartments for adults with special needs -- adjacent to a new neighborhood planned for the Irby Ranch site, where Stanley Boulevard turns into First Street.

The main apartment building will be two stories, U-shaped around an interior courtyard and sitting across from a 4,811-square-foot community center, creating a residential environment similar to a senior living community.

Residents will have access to onsite amenities such as multi-use sports facilities, fitness center, maker-space rooms, community gathering areas, therapeutic spa and caretaker respite areas. They could also choose a meal plan service, and the facility will feature a commercial kitchen.

The $19 million project, which received vital funding from public and private sources, is being developed with strong support from throughout the community -- many of whom were represented at the ceremony last week.

More than 100 people crowded under a large event tent, most with a complimentary sunflower in-hand, for the 40-minute ceremony amid rainy conditions -- though the sun did peek through the clouds from time to time.

Other speakers included representatives of local State Senator Steve Glazer and Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan and other partners and supporters of the project, such as SAHA, Silicon Valley Bank and former assemblywoman Catharine Baker. Also recognized for contributions were the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, National Equity Fund, architect Dahlin Group and general contractor Huff Construction.

The groundbreaking served as a symbol for affordable housing advocacy, taking place in the middle of East Bay Affordable Housing Week. Monthly rents in the complex will be 20%-60% of the area median income.

Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch was ranked as the No. 1 special needs project in the state of California in the July 2018 Tax Credit Allocation Committee funding cycle. Additionally, the city committed a $2.25 million loan from its lower income housing fund and helped the project secure just under $7.2 million in Alameda County Measure A1 affordable housing bond funds.

The city will maintain ownership of the land and lease it for $1 per year for 99 years to the Sunflower Hill complex.

The developers of the unaffiliated 87-house Irby Ranch neighborhood set aside a portion of their land for the future Sunflower Hill project. Sunflower Hill's concept was backed by city officials several years ago, with the special-needs housing proposal serving as a key reason the Pleasanton City Council in 2017 approved the new neighborhood, which is now under construction.

The council signed off on Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch project plans in February 2018, clearing the way for the nonprofit to pursue funding sources in order to turn their proposal into reality.

"There are more than 331,000 individuals in California and more than 20,000 in Alameda County who identify as developmentally disabled," Sunflower Hill executive director Edie Nehls said in a statement after the groundbreaking. "Our community will provide affordable living to a population that's often forgotten in the housing crisis discussions."

Sunflower Hill is also moving forward with a housing complex to serve 44 adults with developmental disabilities on First Street in Livermore. In addition, the nonprofit provides vocational training through the Sunflower Hill Gardens at Hagemann Ranch in Livermore and Sunflower Hill at the Stable Cafe in the Alameda County Fairgrounds.

Fundraisers coming up

As spring turns to summer, Sunflower Hill is gearing up for two key fundraisers -- its popular annual Moonlight in the Vines and its inaugural Sunflower Run.

The new Sunflower Run will come first, set for the morning of June 9, offering 5K and 10K walk/run options and a one-mile Sunshine Run in downtown Pleasanton.

Moonlight in the Vines will follow on July 12, a festive evening gala at Casa Real at Ruby Hill Winery.

Proceeds from the events will support Sunflower Hill's efforts to create affordable residential communities and vocational programs for adults with developmental disabilities. To learn more, visit

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5 people like this
Posted by Frankie
a resident of Alisal Elementary School
on May 23, 2019 at 12:18 am

Frankie is a registered user.

This is fantastic and I hope more special needs and senior housing is built. Unfortunately despite all the celebration, it took too long to go through the permitting process and should have been expedited. And local politicians take the credit when it’s all over. The developer should also be applauded for their efforts to incorporate the special needs site into their plan at no doubt great cost, and work with the City and Sunflower for several years. Cooperation by all parties is needed if similar housing is to be built for those in need without taking so long.

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