Building Housing with Olya and Todd of Sares Regis Group

image of Isaac and Olya and Todd. Isaac is a mixed race black autistic man smiling at camera with short brown hair, glasses, headphones, and microphone. Olya is white with shoulder length blonde hair smiling at camera with picture of The Kelsey Ayer Station behind her. Todd's photo is a white man white short brown hair smiling at camera.

In this episode of the Leaders for Inclusive Community podcast, Isaac interviews Olya Krasnykh and Todd Regonini about building disability-forward housing solutions. Sares Regis is our co-developer on The Kelsey Ayer Station. With a multibillion dollar housing and office portfolio, they’ve delivered over 4,500 rental apartments and for-sale homes. The Kelsey is their first community development focused on disability access and inclusion.

Read the Transcript

Isaac Haney Owens:

Hello, this is Isaac Haney Owens. Your host of the Kelsey’s Leaders for Inclusive Community podcast. As a part of affordable housing month, I’m interviewing individuals about housing developments, policies, and funding that can help advance disability-forward housing solutions and learn more about their own work within the affordable housing field.

Todd Regonnini:

By participating in a project like this, the designers and the architects and the other folks is, in general, contractors that are all involved in helping to put a project together like the Kelsey Ayer Station. Learn something and take that away from the project and have the ability to use that in future home building efforts.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Today, Friday, May 21st, I’m interviewing Olya, Assistant Vice President of Residential Development; and Todd Chief Development Officer of Residential Development at Sares Regis Group of Northern California. Let’s get started.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Thanks for joining me today. I’m really excited to talk with both of you to begin. Can you tell me where you work in your role?

Olya Krasnykh:

Absolutely. Isaac, really nice talking to you today. My name is Olya. I work at Sares Regis. I’m an Assistant Vice President for the Residential Development Division.

Todd Regonnini:

And Isaac, thank you for having us. My name is Todd, and I’m with Sares Regis Group as well here in Northern California. And I am the Chief Development Officer in our Residential Development Division. We build all types of housing, and we’re very excited to join you today.

Isaac Haney Owens:

How long have you both been working there?

Olya Krasnykh:

It’s actually interesting, I was just thinking about that. In June, it’s going to be seven years. And it’s an interesting date because up until I joined the Sares Regis, the longest job I’ve ever had was two years maximum when I started working when I was 15. So that tells you that I’m enjoying my time here.

Todd Regonnini:

Well, I’m glad you mentioned that, Olya, because I’ve been here 31 years since the company was founded. And I think one of the things that we noticed, Isaac, is that folks tend to stay at our company a pretty long time. And I think they really enjoy what they do in contributing to building housings here in Northern California.

Isaac Haney Owens:

What’s one exciting, interesting thing that any of you are working on right now in housing?

Olya Krasnykh:

I probably would have to say this project, the Kelsey Ayer Station and our partnership with Kelsey and divine and long. That’s definitely been for me one of the more exciting projects because of the unique mission. And I’ve been kind of inspired to think about housing in a slightly different manner than I have come to think about it before, especially through the lens of accessibility.

Todd Regonnini:

Oh yeah. I’d agree that I think the Kelsey Ayer Station is super exciting. For me, it’s for our whole organization. I think another interesting project that we’re working on as well, Isaac, is we’re rebuilding downtown Sunnyvale, which is kind of a former mall and it’s being converted into a real downtown with shops and housing and offices right at the train station. So we’re very excited and happy to be involved with something at that scale as well.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Does affordable housing all look the same?

Olya Krasnykh:

Interesting question. It really doesn’t. I have to say… And I’m still learning about the field. I actually just recently joined the board of directors at all the housing, formerly Palo Alto housing, an organization that’s been around for, oh, I think something like 50 years. And they’ve been developing affordable housing, mostly in Palo Alto, but recently deranged that rebranded and brand… are branching out to nearby jurisdictions. And I had the benefit of getting an orientation from them on their former projects and current projects in the pipeline. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised how different and unique each project looks and the way it fits into surrounding context. Some of the buildings I’ve passed by, on my walks and bicycle rides, and I didn’t know it was an affordable housing project. So I was pleasantly surprised.

Todd Regonnini:

Yeah. And I would add, Isaac, that over the years, the types of funding and sources of financing available for affordable housing has really resulted in sort of, stratification is the wrong word, but almost a breakdown of housing into various categories. And it’s a shame that, that sort of it happened because it has created gaps in the types of housing that is available out there, and the need for affordable housing is fast at a wide range of income and need levels. And the financing sources that have been available over the years really hasn’t addressed that. And so that’s an area that needs a lot of attention and a lot of focus, I think, in the years to come to better match the financing with the types of housing communities really need.

Isaac Haney Owens:

And what are your both thoughts on Senate bill 7 that got signed into law recently by the governor that was authored by Scott Wiener?

Olya Krasnykh:

I actually need a bit of a refresher on what the bill proposes.

Isaac Haney Owens:

It extends the California environmental quality act and makes it easier to create housing that meets environmental needs.

Todd Regonnini:

Yeah, I think what I would comment on in addition to the financing and the way it’s been sort of stratified over the years, neighborhood and community, opposition is really a strong word, but concerns over change in their community. I don’t think it’s necessarily concerns related to affordable housing per se, but change in a community is always something that is difficult to work through. That has been a major reason why enough housing hasn’t been produced to meet the need. And anything that can be done to help streamline the process for allowing housing to go forward, I think, is a step in the right direction.

Isaac Haney Owens:

And also educating these residents about the benefits of affordable housing so that they are more willing to open to affordable housing coming to their community.

Todd Regonnini:

No, that’s exactly right. And what communities really need, basically to create a stable place where people can live long term and grow and find different types of housing as their needs change or as their means change over time that they really need… Communities need a ladder of different types of housing in different levels of affordability, and that’s a good thing for a community. It allows people to stay in a community. It really adds stability long term. And so you’re right, education really is the key. People just need to understand that.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Is something missing in the housing industry that could make more developers build more affordable housing or to build more accessible housing?

Olya Krasnykh:

Great question, Isaac. I think between Todd and I, we can come up with a very long list.

Todd Regonnini:

So true.

Olya Krasnykh:

Maybe I’ll name one them, you can name one, and we can trade it. So I think one idea, and this is… For me, the Kelsey Ayer Station is the first affordable project I worked on. So it’s been really eyeopening how financing comes together in a fun and affordable deal. And it’s certainly a lot more complex and challenging them putting together a source of financing for a market rate project, mostly because you’re dealing with a number of public agencies and you’re cobbling together. I’m going to say bits and pieces together, and you end up with a collection of funding sources often more than five that really all need to sort of agree and come together and infuse this cash into the project at one point in time right before we start construction. And it’s challenging coordinating those different agencies.

Todd Regonnini:

Right. And in addition to that, a couple of things. Thinking about accessibility in general, it really is an issue of education and awareness, Isaac, and visibility. I think that’s really important. Accessibility is really good for all of us, and we’re not used to thinking that way or a lot of folks aren’t. So again, change, whatever it is, many times is difficult because modern life can be difficult today. We’re pulled in so many different directions, and our attention is valuable. And so a lot of different people are looking for our attention. And so we need to be able to pull people’s attention to the needs of the community and the needs of those with access or disabilities. And so I think that’s important. So again, education and awareness.

Todd Regonnini:

But the other thing, Isaac, that we see is the missing middle housing, which is for folks in the middle income range. That is not being built either, and that’s a very important piece of the housing ladder. And if that type of housing isn’t being built, what you have is you have folks with more means in a community, living in homes that could be available for folks that have lesser means. And so they tend to drive up the costs of housing, if not enough has been provided. So providing missing middle housing is a very important piece of the puzzle as well. And right now, there really aren’t any many sources for financing that type of housing, and that needs to be solved. That really is a big part of the equation,

Olya Krasnykh:

So that there is a continuous ladder, so to speak, so that you have an entry point at maybe a very low or low level of income. And then you can kind of progress if you’re so able to middle income and hopefully to market rate housing, eventually.

Todd Regonnini:

That’s exactly right. You don’t want to have to leave the community. Your kids are in school and the like. As your means change over time, you want to be able to stay in that broader community. And it would be nice if housing was available to accommodate you as you move in that direction.

Isaac Haney Owens:

People with disabilities aren’t always considered when people build housing. What suggestions do you have to developers who aren’t currently designing with accessibility and inclusion in mind?

Olya Krasnykh:

Well, I think Todd hit it on the head a little earlier when he said visibility is sort of at the forefront, which is actually why, I think, we were also excited to support the Kelsey with the unique mission and mission of bringing some of these considerations to the forefront than to light. So I think we’re well on our way, and I think we’ve learned some… I’ve definitely learned some lessons about how I look at a design space and consider users of all abilities in that space and how they will interact with that environment. And I think the more we continue to sort of talk about it and make that information more accessible to designers and developers, the more we’ll see inclusive buildings built.

Todd Regonnini:

Right. And in addition to that, I mean, it’s not only just the visibility within the public sphere. It’s also by participating in a project like this, the designers and the architects and the other folks, the general contractors that are all involved in helping to put a project together like the Kelsey Ayer Station learn something and take that away from the project and have the ability to use that in future home building efforts. And so that’s a good thing. And so I think the Kelsey, I really have to applaud them as an organization for pushing hard for this and being out there in the forefront, the advocacy work that they do. It really affects a lot of different people, and it informs a lot of professionals in the industry as well.

Isaac Haney Owens:

What has been more exciting about building affordable housing, inclusive housing at the Ayer station, most challenging, most surprising?

Todd Regonnini:

Boy, the most exciting aspect, I think getting to know many of the folks that are affiliated with the Kelsey and understanding what their hopes and desires are for a home really add life to the project. And to me, that’s been the most exciting part. I mean, there were all of the traditional development related lessons that we pick up along the way. Those are great, and those are important. But the thing that always gets me and the reason why I’m in the housing business is because everybody needs a home, and there’s something special about being a provider of homes. And when you able to learn and understand what future residents want and try to figure out ways to provide that for them, that’s very rewarding and exciting to me.

Olya Krasnykh:

And I’ll say, oh, actually, I 100% agree. I think the community that the Kelsey has brought together and the sort of excitement and interest that we’re seeing from all the participants and all the individuals who are associated with the Kelsey, and I would let you know, are supporting the project, both in the community where we’re building the project than just the broader community that you guys have brought together. That’s been exciting, right? It kind of helps infuse a bit of energy into everything we’re doing and get us focused on the fact that we’re going to be delivering home soon. We’re going to be starting construction soon, and folks are going to be moving into these homes in a few years. So it’s kind of creating a sense of urgency, but in a very positive momentum, I should say.

Olya Krasnykh:

But I’ll also answer, the challenging part has been that we’ve been talking from day one with [Mikaela 00:17:01] about this concept of universal design and a universally designed building that’s accessible to everyone. The whole design is not really defined anywhere. I think everybody intuitively understands what that means to be in building that’s accessible to everyone of all abilities, but it’s hard to put something on paper that hasn’t really been developed as an idea more fully. And so I know that Kelsey is working very closely with Eric, make it sense to develop a sort of a standard system for designers and builders to look at their buildings and make them more accessible. And I think that’s absolutely wonderful thing to be focused on and sort of help those of us who don’t always intuitively understand some of the challenges that some people may have in these spaces and really create a set of tools for designers to use and be able to choose from when they’re designing their spaces. So I think that’s both a challenge and also something exciting that this project has brought.

Isaac Haney Owens:

And then what are you, guys, thoughts about the project, the civic center project?

Olya Krasnykh:

I think it’s wonderful. I actually allow love the Mikaela’s idea of building a project in three of the major cities in our area and kind of triangulating, if you will, the Bay Area between San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. So I’m excited to see that project move forward. I am excited that we are in San Jose and the Kelsey Ayer Station. We are likely going to start construction first, so we’re a little bit ahead of the game. And hopefully, a civic center will be right at our heels and we’ll start in construction shortly after.

Isaac Haney Owens:

I hope these projects get other developers to rethink the way they’re doing housing and think that they need to include people with disabilities in their projects as well.

Olya Krasnykh:

Absolutely.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Because everybody deserves a place to live regardless of your income, and anyone shouldn’t be excluded because they can’t afford the rent, the units in that housing project.

Olya Krasnykh:

I wholeheartedly agree.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Why did any of you decide to go into this field?

Todd Regonnini:

I started in school as a structural engineer. And as I needed to look to broaden my area study, I started taking a lot of planning classes, environmental and urban planning classes, and kind of really began to appreciate the broader built environment and how it really affects our lives, people’s lives and how it can either work well with nature and the environment or against it and became fascinated with that. I’d always had a fascination with the concept of home as well. So after I got out of college, I decided to go into the development industry, the residential development industry, and focus not on doing the structural design, the detailed design of buildings, but more the broader design of housing communities and how they fit into neighborhoods and how they become a part of the fabric of a city. And that was very, very exciting to me, and it still is all these years later.

Olya Krasnykh:

And similarly, but a little bit differently, I actually started, believe it or not, doing cancer biology when I graduated from college. And tried a few different laboratories and sort of learned over time that research is really not where I feel most inspired. There was a lot of research done with animals as models, and that wasn’t my favorite thing to do as to dissect mice, but it is something that we do for the broader good of the people a lot of times to develop these drug treatments. But anyway, I started to look for other opportunities to interact with bigger teams. It’s something I was interested in, and I really came to appreciate all aspects of sustainability and some of the issues that we’ve been with resource availability, like water and energy conservation.

Olya Krasnykh:

And when I was in graduate school at Stanford, I realized looking at statistics that we just haven’t been building enough housing for many decades, and I was living in Palo Alto and prices were very high for rental housing. And originally, I come from Russia where we mostly have apartment buildings and we don’t have single family homes. Everybody lives in high density environments with a lot of open space. But that strings are really prioritized versus over cars. And I remember that from childhood and always thought it was a very positive environment to grow up and where I can run out on the street and play because there’s no cars there. It’s a big boulevard meant for pedestrians. So I started thinking about the built environment and the fact that we don’t have housing. And much like taught and very passionate, there’s something very intimate about homes. It’s where we all spend a lot of our time and see our families grow up and come together and share all those moments.

Olya Krasnykh:

So those two things really influenced my decision to go into development, especially residential development, A, because we just haven’t been building enough housing, which has created a lot of problems in the region and, B, it’s a very exciting product type. And so I look back at everything I used to do prior to those jobs. And like I said, I’ve been here for seven years and all my previous jobs lasted no more than two. So it’s been definitely an exciting transition.

Isaac Haney Owens:

What do you both like about your job?

Todd Regonnini:

Hmm, boy, well, beyond just the idea of creating a home for somebody, which is very exciting, it’s working in helping to shape built environment in a way that what you’re doing is you’re adding something that is useful. And hopefully, you’re not just adding it, you’re integrating it into a fabric and making that fabric more interesting and better at the end of the day. And that, you have to take a longer view. It’s not just in any one project, it really is how can you make a community a more full and better place at the end of the day? And it’s very interesting and very exciting to think about our business that way.

Olya Krasnykh:

I think very much like Todd influencing the built environment is really exciting. It is exciting to drive by or hopefully bicycle buyer walk by our projects and know the history of what used to be there. Maybe it wasn’t under utilized carwash that now became 50 units of for sale condos or rental apartments or town homes. And it’s really this community, almost like a community building element to it. We’re bringing people to places where there were fewer people before. And that coming to those spaces later and really seeing them activated and being used in a way that hopefully we intended them to be used, sometimes maybe not and there are lessons learned, is pretty rewarding.

Isaac Haney Owens:

What advice do you have for people interested in working in housing?

Olya Krasnykh:

Perseverance.

Todd Regonnini:

Yeah. So that’s number one, no doubt about it. I think another very important thing is you need to listen very, very carefully over a long period of time. It’s difficult to this because it’s… Housing is one of the shelter. It’s one of the main things we all need, right? We need shelter, food, water, sleep and love, of course, right? And so those are all essentials of life. And creating shelter, working here in a more mature area, like the Bay Area, what we’re doing is, again, we’re doing something infill, we’re changing something. As Olya mentioned, maybe it’s a car wash that does it. It has become obsolete, right? And it’s in a location that is close to transit, and people should be living at that location.

Todd Regonnini:

So when we make change, it makes people nervous. And so before you make the change, you really need to listen and understand what the needs are of the community, the real needs, what their wishes and desires and concerns and issues are. And the real, I think, art of this business, and that includes inclusion and affordability and everything else, the real art of this business then is taking that information and crafting a project, site-specific boutique solution that best addresses everything you’ve learned. And it all starts with listening.

Isaac Haney Owens:

For my last question, I want to ask you all about home for more. Home for more is Kelsey’s tagline at the Kelsey, and it represents that there are many opportunities and ways to advance housing. For you, what would you like to make home for more?

Olya Krasnykh:

I think because I grew up in an environment where we mostly had denser housing that’s still provided ample sort of open space around, I hear a lot of concerns often here about taller buildings sort of blocking out the sky or creating a significant strain on resources like worsening traffic. In the environment where I grew up, those weren’t the negative consequences of denser developments, right? Because again, for cars, we’re in deprioritized stands. People sort of came together to live in a more communal way than I think many communities here live, especially in the single family neighborhood. So I think as I look at our overall population growth and then noticing certain trends, especially relating to energy consumption and people who live in a denser environment and who don’t own vehicles, don’t consume as much fossil fuels and resources in general.

Olya Krasnykh:

I think in this area, I have to kind of grow up. California went from 20 million people 60 years ago to now 40 million people, but our land use patterns and sort of the way we develop buildings and the way we approve buildings really hasn’t changed. It’s reasonably started to change. So I think there’s going to be sort of a period of evolving in this region into a higher density type or more urban-like environment. And I think there’s a lot of opportunities there to get it right than sort of get it wrong. And I hope we make the right choices, and again prioritize people over vehicles.

Olya Krasnykh:

So I think that’s going to create healthier communities and more opportunities for people to interact with one another in a very positive way. And I hope that that’s our future. We can and most definitely will house more people in this positive way in this area, even though we’re keeping. I think that I heard a statistic in San Mateo County, 75% of land area is off limits for development, which is great because it’s providing all these wonderful open spaces and nature preserves and parks. But in the 25% where we do build buildings, we will have to provide more homes for everyone who wants to be here.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Well, homes that are affordable to everybody because sometimes these developers, sometimes we’ll do is just build. Like for example, 25% affordable homes and then most are market rate. And then it doesn’t really help the dire need for more affordable housing. It doesn’t help. And then many people get missed and then never get homes because they’re fighting for the limited number of units available in that building.

Todd Regonnini:

Right. And so I think building upon that, Isaac, what there needs to be, I believe, again, is a rework at the financing that’s available for affordable and below market rate housing. I guess you hear the term sometimes all of the above, more of an embrace within a community of a wide range of housing types that are available to help make that ladder a reality. I think that that’s really important. I think there needs to be more efforts to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing and some public financing available to help shore up and renovate some older homes that have really outlived their useful life when they were originally built. They were intended to be around for 40 or 50 years. And they’re 60, 70, 80 years old now and still housing folks, but they need some help and some repair to the physical building.

Todd Regonnini:

I think all of that missing middle that there needs to be more focused on different types of housing financing and incentives available to encourage development of a wide range of housing types. And I think coming out of the Kelsey Ayer Station, more visibility. And when we say all of the above, we’re thinking about folks that have various needs other than just financial considerations. And so that’s folks that have… There’s ability issues, accessibility issues. It really does truly need to be everybody. It needs to address everybody.

Isaac Haney Owens:

Thanks for listening. Make sure to check out my other episodes at thekelsey.org/stories. Have a great day.

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