MARTINEZ -- More than three years after it won approval, construction has begun on an apartment complex for low-income seniors in downtown Martinez.

Berkeley-based Resources for Community Development, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, last month began construction on Berrellesa Palms, a 49-unit apartment building. Future tenants will be 62 and older with chronic health conditions such as kidney disease, arthritis or heart problems, and incomes of $22,500 or less. The building should be completed by June 2014.

"We're really excited because I think we're really providing the kind of housing that's not out there for frail older people," said Lisa Motoyama, director of housing development.

"I would hope that when people see the building that they'll feel comfortable. It's going to be beautiful, and it's going to be a really nice place to live," she added.

Berrellesa Palms survived fierce opposition, a lawsuit and funding challenges.

Critics said the three-story building was too large for the 1-acre site at Berrellesa and Buckley streets.

In September 2009, the City Council upheld the Planning Commission's approval of a use permit allowing the developer to build more units than typically allowed in that neighborhood. Residents then sued to force the city to do a full environmental review of the project, but lost.

Resources for Community Development used $1.4 million in federal housing funds from Contra Costa County to buy the property, but securing the rest of the funding for the $23 million project took some time.

Originally, prospective residents were to be 55 and older with annual household incomes up to $32,000. But after several funding sources fell through, the developer won a $6 million grant from the state Department of Housing and Community Development that restricted residency to older, poorer and frailer seniors. As a consequence of the change, the developer also said the project would contribute $660,000 annually to the local economy, down from the original estimate of $800,000.

The shift in the tenant population reignited criticism. Although some residents urged the council to reconsider the project, the assistant city attorney determined that blocking Berrellesa Palms likely would violate state and federal fair housing law and leave the city vulnerable to a lawsuit.

Resources for Community Development plans to distribute applications for Berrellesa Palms in the fall, said Carolyn Bookhart, senior project manager. So far, the developer has paid $1.2 million for building permit and impact fees, she said.

Although critics scoffed at the notion that the low-income tenants will have much money to spend at downtown restaurants and shops, Councilman Mark Ross noted that visiting relatives probably will patronize Martinez businesses.

"I think at some point it will be of greater benefit than I think people have accorded it," Ross said. "It's providing jobs and improving on the industrial yard that was there."

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.