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Burbank Housing – Catalina Townhomes


Every homeowner takes pride in their home, but not all can say that they were involved in their construction. But those in the Catalina Townhomes development can, since they are building the majority of the structures.

The $22 million project located in Santa Rosa, Calif., is a self-help, single family home project being developed by Burbank Housing, a nonprofit organization that focuses on making more housing available in Sonoma County for low-income people of all ages, backgrounds and special needs. “We have access to funding for affordable housing,” Senior Project Manager Tom Kuhn explains.

These funds are accessed through city, state and federal governments and are earmarked for self-help housing construction. “The person buying the home has to contribute a significant amount of labor to build the homes,” he says, noting that the residents work under the guidance and training of Burbank Housing supervisors.

But to stay safe, Burbank Housing utilizes subcontractors to complete some complex tasks, such as roofing or cement work. The future residents “do all the prep for the foundations, including the rebar, and we bring in a company that does the actual pour,” Kuhn explains.

Guided Construction

Catalina Townhomes will consist of 60 homes when complete. Each will stand two stories and cover 1,300 to 1,600 square feet. “They also have two-car garages,” Kuhn says, noting that they will be Energy Star homes.

Work started on the first 32 units one year ago and will be finished later this year. The remaining 28, he notes, will be finished this December. “Our construction timelines are a little longer than for a contractor-built homes,” Kuhn says, noting that its homebuyers have to work when it fits their schedules. “Almost all of our participants cover their work obligation on the weekends.”

“We probably have over 100 homebuyers working,” he continues, but notes that the buyers do not have to do the work alone. “They’re allowed to get people to help them, which in many cases are family members. On Saturdays, we can easily have 150 to 200 of these participants who were previously untrained in construction.”

Some homebuyers do have construction training, which makes things easier for Burbank Housing’s supervisors. “We try to make the maximum use of their knowledge,” Kuhn says, noting that Burbank’s supervisors guide them through the construction on a day-by-day basis. 

Catalina Challenges

Burbank Housing acquired the land for Catalina Townhomes in 2007, but due to declining real estate values, the project became financially unfeasible. Then, once values rebounded, Burbank has had significant issues finding qualified buyers.  

“In years past, we haven’t had much difficulty with projects like this,” Kuhn recalls.

“The problem is a lot of people in this demographic only got through the great recession with their credit cards,” he explains, noting that the homebuyers require an employment history, a good credit rating and debt payments low enough to qualify for a mortgage. 

The buyers also have to fall within affordability requirements set by the funding sources. “People can’t earn more than 80 percent of the area median income for this project, adjusted for family size,” he says.

Another challenge Burbank Housing encountered was designing the homes in the face of changing regulations. “We’re in earthquake country,” Kuhn says. “The standards keep getting higher and higher.

“That makes these homes quite complex,” he continues. “The framing and structural elements on the front and back of the homes are quite complex, and [made] even more difficult since we do not have experienced framers.”

Bringing Value

Santa Rosa-based Burbank Housing started operations in 1980 and also specializes in multifamily apartments. “Recently, a lot more of our business has been the multifamily and not the self-help, single-family homes,” Kuhn says.

Kuhn has been with Burbank Housing for more than 10 years and credits its success to effective management. “We’ve done a very good job capitalizing on the funding sources that are available for the people that we serve,” he says.

He is proud of the company’s work. “We have built and managed affordable rental housing for about 3,000 households,” he says, noting that Burbank Housing has built more than 800 homes like the ones found in Catalina. 

The organization also has helped lower the number of homeless people in the area, a result of its work of which Kuhn and Burbank are very proud. 

“It’s helping keep down the housing cost pressure of people,” Kuhn says. “It is a pretty big deal for somebody that was previously homeless to own a home. When we see somebody make that kind of stride, we can really see the value we bring value to the community we serve.” 

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