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Friday, January 26, 2007

A further examination of the Eleanor Roosevelt Circle Affordable Housing Project

A few weeks ago we had a critical article on the Senior Affordable Housing project, Eleanor Roosevelt Circle. The developers of that project--Luke Watkins and David Thompson requested a chance to address some of the concerns raised in that article. So last week I toured the Eleanor Roosevelt Circle facility and met with Mr. Watkins and Mr. Thompson for several hours.

The facility itself is very nice. Each unit is either completely accessible to disabled citizens or is designed to be easily modified to accommodate disabled citizens. This was an important feature because Seniors may move into these facilities and not need the accessibility, however, if they live there for a period of time that may become a need in the future.

The facility has an on-site manager who works 40 hours per week and lives on the premises. There is also a full-time maintenance person and a social services coordinator, who also works 40 hours a week.

The original purpose of the project was to serve the needs of the moderate income with affordable housing. For a variety of reasons, they could not have the entire facility set aside as moderate income housing for seniors and still get the funding to complete the project. The moderate income are those 120% of median income or around $60,000 per year. So what has happened is that now one-third of the units are set-aside for disabled seniors, and the rest are either low and moderate income seniors, with the moderate range set aside for about 13 units.

Unfortunately, I'm not certain how good a deal that actually is for moderate income people. It's about a 605 square foot place for about $975 per month. Now they do get a good deal of other benefits from living in this community, however it seems to me that that's a fairly small apartment for that amount of money. On the other hand, it's certainly a better deal for low income people who would pay as little as $226 per month.

The sense I got from this is that the varying communities served by this project are the result of needs for funding. You really have three groups--disabled seniors, moderate income seniors, and low income seniors.

This leads into the first problem identified in the original article, which was the narrow definition for senior in the bylaws--requiring it be 62 or older when there are perhaps a number of 55 year olds and older who would like to take advantage of this affordable housing project.

According to Mr. Watkins and Mr. Thompson, this designation was necessitated by federal laws. The federal senior designation for a senior housing project is 62 years of age or older and by using that designation they can discriminate by age, thereby preventing younger people from residing in the apartments.

On the other hand, the 55 years of age or older definition would be a state definition. However, that would require only one person in the unit to be 55 years of age or older. The HUD regulations allow as many as three people to reside in a given one-bedroom apartment, which means that 55 years of age or older would only require one person to be a senior and the rest of the inhabitants of the apartment could be a spouse and a kid, both of whom could be substantially younger than 55 years old. They wanted to avoid such a situation. Unfortunately, that appears to leave a number of people in the 55 to 62 range out of the project at least for the time being and that is unfortunate.

There have been concerns raised about the vacancy rate. The developers maintain that one of the problems is that seniors were reluctant to sign up for housing that they had not seen yet since they would be committing to live there for the long term. Mr. Watkins and Mr. Thompson believe they will be able to fill out the remainder of the apartments shortly. Particularly in March when they believe a number of Section 8 vouchers will become available and that will enable them to fill all but the 120% of median spots.

A question that remains how many of these will be occupied by local residents, however the developers in this case pointed out that many might go to parents of current Davis residents, who wish to reside near their families. That did not seem to be the indication given by recent announcements from Mayor Greenwald who was imploring local people to sign up for housing before the announcements would be made regionally and perhaps statewide.

The remaining concern is about the availability and more importantly accessibility of transportation. As the developers point out, there is a Unitrans busline that is literally across the street (right in front of the Davis Police Station). However, as Senior advocates tell us, that proximity may work for a young person such as myself, but it entails problems for disabled seniors for whom that distance is quite far and waiting outside in the elements is problematic.

A second problem is that Unitrans only runs around town, and one would need to transfer to Yolo Bus in order to go to Sacramento or Woodland to meet shopping needs or to go to federal and state agencies. That would require as much as a two hour trip out and another two hour trip back--which would essentially take up the entire day for what might be a menial errand for a person with more direct transportation.

Senior advocates also point out that the other senior facilities have their own transportation. Mr. Watkins and Mr. Thompson however, counter that those facilities are larger than the Eleanor Roosevelt Circle, which has only 61 units, and they believe a good percentage of those people will likely own their own cars. Thus, they argue that the cost of having in-house transportation would be prohibitive and would require them to cut back on other services since the cost of rent is basically capped by affordable housing regulations. They suggest that the Seniors could utilize Davis Community Transit, which would require a reservation, but should provide their needs.

This is an instance where I disagree with the project developers. From what I understand, Davis Community Transit is difficult to reserve and does not travel outside of the city of Davis. While a number of residents may own cars, as they intend to live at the facility for a good amount of time, those numbers will likely decline as the residents continue to age.

While the cost may be prohibitive, the developers and the city ought to be able to work out some sort of arrangement to provide reliable transportation for the Seniors at this facility.

One thing is clear, this project is a very complex array of issues many of which stem from the need to obtain and secure funding. It is unfortunate that the project cannot accommodate people under the age of 62, there would seem to be a number of people with needs that could utilize these services. We will be watching how this project fares over the future. It is clear that we need more facilities to accommodate the needs of seniors and disabled residents that are affordable to people making lower and middle incomes.

There is one lasting impression I have from the meeting with Luke Watkins and David Thompson and that is repeatedly they cited that their project meets more needs of more types of diverse people than existing projects. Some of that might be dismissed as propaganda, but it does bring to mind that a progressive city such as Davis is not nearly as accommodating to its seniors and middle income populations as it should be. Transportation will always be a problem for seniors, and while we agree that the ERC is closer to the bus lines than other projects, the overall transportation in the city is suboptimal.

Moreover, and this is a repeated problem, the city must get serious about affordable housing. When a 605 square foot apartment renting for $975 a month is "affordable," there is a severe problem with our definitions. As the city embarks on the housing element, we need to keep in mind that if we do not want this city to become an exclusive gated community, we need to take affordability seriously.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting