A TOUR WITH A TWIST – A glimpse at affordable senior housing

By: Barbara Leitenberg

Published in: The Burlington Free Press, May 12, 2008

Spring home and garden tours usually give you a chance to visit impressive gardens and stately homes. “Opening Doors,” a home tour Thursday, is different. It features affordable homes.

“We want community leaders to see what affordable housing is really like,” says Debbie Ingram, director of Vermont Interfaith Action, who is sponsoring the tour of housing developed by Cathedral Square Corp. “It’s not like the notorious ‘projects’ put up in the 1960s and 1970s, which became crime magnets. Today, affordable homes are well-constructed, attractive and nice places to live.”

“Opening Doors” is VIA’s first affordable-home tour in a projected annual series. It focuses on senior housing this year because VIA’s first partner in the series is CSC, a developer of affordable housing for seniors and for people with special needs for the past 30 years.

“We want public officials to understand the need for affordable housing for seniors and how they can influence the growth of this housing by adopting policies like land set-asides and density bonuses for smart growth,” says Nancy Eldridge, CSC director.

“Opening Doors” features five apartments in four Burlington locations developed by CSC; shared housing in Ruggles House; independent living at 3 Cathedral Square; housing with some services at Grand Way Commons; and at McAuley Square. The two apartments shown at McAuley Square include one for seniors and one for younger families with children. The other apartments are all developed for seniors. Residents will lead people through their apartments, pointing out features.

In any Vermont discussion about seniors and their needs, housing is high on the short list. There is now way to talk about personal care or health care if housing needs are not met. In its September report, “Housing and the Needs of Vermont’s Again Population,” the Vermont Housing Finance Agency starts out with the statement: “Vermont needs to give seniors the ability to stay in their homes or assisted supportive living communities for as long as it is safe and responsible.”

The report then describes the problems keeping us from this ideal and some paths to solutions. Put starkly, Vermont is presently short 21,000 affordable rental units and will need nearly 12,300 additional affordable single-family units by 2010. Seniors do not need only apartments; often they need services as part of the housing package. The current wait for affordable senior housing with services can be as long as 2.5 years, Eldridge says.

“The ultimate goal,” says the VHFA report “is for officials and community leaders to think about new ways to encourage development of affordable supportive senior housing.” This message is what “Opening Doors” is all about, says Eldridge and Ingram.

“If we can anticipate the future more clearly and prepare for it,” Eldridge says, “seniors and their families and their employers will be much better off.”

Though CSC, created by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary as a developer and manager of affordable housing for seniors and people with special needs.

VIA is a newer and different kid on the housing block. VIA was founded in 2004 by clergy and lay leaders from several Burlington faith communities to bring about systematic change in institutions that affect the lives of working families.

After detailed conversations with parishioners in the original seven participating congregations, VIA found the most important issues for their members are affordable housing, affordable health care, and opportunities for youth. Instead of helping people directly- giving them groceries, or temporary shelter, or supporting a youth center- VIA concentrates on changing the systems or institutions that keep people from setting their own shelter or food.

“We believe nothing will truly change in our society unless we work to transform our very systems to make them more equitable and just,” Ingram says.

This approach has galvanized hundreds of church members in the Burlington area (and in the Barre-Montpelier area) to research issues and work with city, state, and town officials to make changes- like strengthening Burlington’s inclusionary zoning ordinance and getting a commitment from the University of Vermont to build affordable housing for faculty and staff.

“I always thought of myself as a reluctant activist,” says Sue Brookes, past president of the VIA board. “after I retired, I said ‘yes’ to everything, trying to help out in some way, but not feeling really useful. I always wanted to do more, but I didn’t know what to do.”

VIA training has helped her see how she can be useful to her community. “We can go to the roots of the problem,” she says. “I feel like I am spending my time meaningfully.”

Peggy Poppe and Virginia Munklewitz, coordinators of the affordable housing tour, also see their efforts as part of systematic change, “This is the first time I’ve been involved in the political process, not just helping people one-on-one, but pulling people together around issues of importance,” Poppe says.