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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Word To The Wise: Proposed Senior Housing Guidelines

by E.A. Roberts


I usually leave the more controversial issues in DPD’s capable hands, and instead try to provide informative topics of interest on the subject of the elderly and disabled. However, senior housing seems to be a current hot button issue in this community, so I will dare to launch into troubled waters. In so doing, on occasion I will risk giving my opinion on the subject. A previous column I wrote for this blog discussed senior housing, but in a more informative format.

Recently I was invited by Tandem Properties to attend a “focus group”, ostensibly to obtain my view on what senior housing should look like in Davis. Because I am a member of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission, I was very reluctant to attend. My feeling was that as a commission member, I did not want to give any appearance of impropriety in my actions. To attend a developer’s focus group might be construed the wrong way if I was not careful.

Unfortunately, I felt it imperative to go - once fellow commission members urged me to do so, after they had attended some of these focus groups. I began to realize it was necessary to find out what was going on. In the end, I am actually glad I chose to be present. It gave me a heads up on what is in the works for proposal by developers, and an opportunity for me to impart my views to them. As a commission member, it can be a fine line to walk.

It should be understood from the outset that I was the only member of the “focus group” I attended, which felt very uncomfortable. But it also gave me the opportunity to ask lots of questions, and I had many. Here is the gist of what I was told:

  • Tandem Properties wants to propose a senior housing development on the former Covell Village site.
  • The first phase would include 800 units. There is a second and third phase in the planning stages as well.
  • All levels of affordability will be included.
  • The developers are willing to kick in the costs of an AMR station, but not a fourth fire station. They feel to fund another fire station would be cost prohibitive.
  • Many wonderful amenities are contemplated for this senior housing development, including the concept of “telemedicine” - doctor visits via the computer. Their vision is a veritable wonderland chock full of enticing goodies.
  • Tandem Properties has formed a Healthy Aging group, that has put out a newsletter promoting good health for seniors. Naturally, Tandem believes their housing proposal will enhance the good health of any older adult who chose to live in their envisioned senior community.
  • According to the developers, the “internal need” of Davisites should include elderly parents who wish to reside near their adult children already residing here.
  • Downsizing is the common mantra of the developers, who insist -
    • This is what seniors want;
    • It will be for the good of the community because:
      • It will free up more stock for workforce housing;
      • It will bring in more young families to help do away with the declining enrollment problem in the schools.

Since that time, I have also talked with some members of the Housing Element Steering Committee (HESC). One piece of information I have gleaned from them is as follows:

  • They are projecting an “internal need” for somewhere between 200 to 400 units of senior housing between now and the year 2013;
  • The members I talked with and a person on city staff are indicating there is very little justification for the numbers arrived at, ostensibly because it is a difficult figure to quantify.

At my strong urging, the Davis Senior Citizens Commission has elected to take up the issue of senior housing. The plan is to come up with some guidelines for the City Council to follow as it deliberates on any housing proposal. (City staff would prefer the creation of guidelines be done in coordination with the Social Services Commission, which could be problematic - since the constituencies they answer to are vastly different. The Senior Citizens Commission addresses the issues of all seniors, whereas the Social Services Commission concerns itself with the needs of low income and disabled.) This is so that whatever is built will not be “developer driven”, but rather have sufficient community input prior to its proposal being introduced for consideration. The hope is sufficient guidelines will preclude any future Covell Village debacle, as has happened in the past, where the City Council is not in sync with the community at large.

During the “focus group” I attended at Tandem Properties, my input was solicited. In general I remained fairly noncommittal, but did offer the following advice:

  • It is important for any developer to first offer up proposed housing development plans for feedback at various city commissions, such as the Planning Commission, Senior Citizens Commission and other appropriate venues - before making a formal proposal to the City Council. In so far as Covell Village is concerned, there was a perception that developers were attempting to make an end run around process by going directly to the City Council majority for approval. With Measure J in place, that gambit will not be very effective.
  • Necessary to the process will be for developers to consider “internal” community needs rather than “external” needs of those who live outside Davis. (This is not an elitist attitude, by the way, but a recognition that the efforts of the City Council need to be directed toward addressing community problems first and foremost, if at all possible. This is the charge of the City Council.)

To date, I am trying to keep an open mind on the subject of senior housing. I am not anti-developer by any stretch of the imagination. However, as things have unfolded, certain concerns have taken root. The ensuing discussion may help frame the issue of how much senior housing should the city of Davis build for the future.

Up until now, I strongly believe our community housing needs have been largely ignored in favor of a housing policy that is “developer driven”. It has resulted in some unfortunate byproducts, not the least of which is the present public school disaster. Home builders are promising new construction of schools as an enticement to homebuyers - without adequate assurance the school system will have enough in the way of operating expenses to run the new facilities. In consequence, too many schools were built in Davis, which resulted in the closure of Valley Oak Elementary and the threatened closure of Emerson Junior High.

Another unfortunate derivative of new housing is an increase in taxes - brought on by additional city services it inevitably brings. In this day and age of tough budget cuts, and the resulting decrease in state revenue to our city, the escalating tax burden factor becomes critical for our citizens on moderate or fixed incomes. It should be noted the City Council is proposing a new public safety tax. The School Board is proposing another parcel tax on top of the one we already are paying. Water and sewer rates are increasing at an astronomical rate.

Developers are in the business of making money for themselves, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, it must be remembered they are in the building industry first and foremost to maximize their profits. Thus if their proposals are not in the best interests of the city, it is incumbent upon the City Council to raise red flags where appropriate, and get the developers to rethink and revise their proposal. This did not happen with the original Covell Village project.

Instead, it felt as if some on the City Council had already had their minds made up by developers, and merely wanted the commissions to rubber stamp approval. This was an unfortunate position to take, especially in light of the impending Measure J vote. Because some on the City Council failed to first obtain sufficient community and commission input, the entire Covell Village matter ended in an embarrassing defeat at the polls.

Which brings up the issue of Measure J, which will be a thorn in the sides to developers unless it is somehow weakened with amendments. I am a strong supporter of Measure J in its present form, as a check on the abuses of process that often take place in local politics. It ensures that the City Council truly listens to the electorate when weighing in on the important issue of how much we should grow as a city, and in what direction. Any City Council member that tries to monkey with it does so at their political peril.

That said, there are a few disturbing arguments being bandied about by the pro-developer contingent, that I find quite disturbing. The notion that all seniors want to downsize is fallacious. An AARP survey indicates otherwise. Actually 83% of those 45 and older would prefer to stay in their existing home, and not downsize. If that statistic is applied to:

  • Tandem Properties’ alleged “internal need” of 800 units by year 2013, the “internal need” shrinks to 136 units;
  • HESC’s estimated “internal need” of 200-400 units by year 2013, the “internal need shrivels to between 34-68 units.

In fact, the current wait list for Shasta Point and Eleanor Roosevelt, both essentially low-income senior facilities, is virtually zero. As is the wait-list at Atria Covell Gardens, an assisted living facility for the elderly.

It is also completely inappropriate to argue seniors should downsize for the good of the community, to free up housing for the workforce and help end the problem of declining enrollment in our schools. Seniors have a constitutionally protected right to remain in their homes for as long as they want. Furthermore, seniors often use extra bedrooms for visiting relatives, live-in caregivers, and to rent for supplemental income. The elderly often have an emotional attachment to their home as well. Moreover, to sell to a stranger would eliminate the possible transfer of tax advantages of Prop 13 to the senior homeowner’s children.

Nor can one argue, with a straight face, that parents of adult Davisites represent part of the “internal need” of Davis. This line of misleading reasoning is as follows: parents who live outside the city will eventually want to move to Davis, to live where their adult children reside. But logic tells us that just as many elderly parents who live in Davis will want to move outside the city to be with adult children who live elsewhere. Not to mention those elderly in Davis who want to move AWAY from their adult children!

Be it good, bad or indifferent, here are a set of proposed guidelines I would like to see the City Council follow any time they are thinking of approving new housing, along with a checklist. I welcome any and all comments, constructive criticisms and new ideas.

General Housing Principles

A. General Housing Principles

  • COMMUNITY PLANNED - Determination of housing requirements should not be “developer driven”, but accomplished in response to the expressed desires of the community.
    • INDEPENDENT MARKET ANALYSIS - Market analysis of the true community need for housing should be done by an independent consultant who has no ties to the developer/city staff/city council members. The analysis should speak to:
      • Affordability - in which the term is used in its broadest sense to include those of moderate income within the city of Davis.
      • Marketability - determination if there is a true demand for specific types of housing proposed.
    • BUILD IN SMALLER INCREMENTS - Build housing developments encompassing all housing types when practicable in smaller increments (phases), to better ascertain if it is meeting the true ongoing community needs of the city.
  • COST TO TAXPAYERS FOR CITY SERVICES - An examination of cost in city services (additional tax burden) to all citizens, of a new development, should be mandatory as part of any application to build.
    • City services to be investigated would include but is not limited to fire protection, law enforcement, parks maintenance, increase in water/sewer rate increases and the like.
    • Developers should be required to pay mitigation fees in full, to decrease the cost of city services to residents of Davis.
  • SOUND PLANNING PRINCIPLES - Implement sound planning principles that take into account what is best for the entire community, including but not limited to:
    • Avoidance of development in larger flood plains or next to toxic sites;
    • Air quality considerations;
    • Good traffic management.
  • ACCESSABILITY/VISITABILITY - The principles of accessibility/visitability should be incorporated into all new housing.

B. Senior Housing Guidelines

    In determining the need for senior housing in Davis for its citizens, the following factors need to be taken into account in any market analysis:

  • AGE DEFINITIONS - Age definitions or restrictions must be well defined, e.g. age 65 and over.
  • PREFERENCE TO REMAIN HOME - Preference of 87% of seniors to remain in their homes, according to AARP survey.
  • DOWNSIZING - A need to downsize - because either a) there is a medical crisis that requires it; b) the owner of a larger home recognizes s/he can no longer manage its upkeep; c) or there is simply a desire to be among peers.
  • HOUSING OPTIONS - A need for different housing types for seniors, who cannot/do not wish to remain in their homes, should be considered.
    • HOUSING SUITABLE FOR SENIORS - Many seniors are not in favor of living in age-restricted housing, preferring housing suitable for seniors. Creative options should be explored, such as cooperative housing or shared housing alternatives.
    • AGE-RESTRICTED SENIOR HOUSING - Age-restricted senior housing types to be contemplated are as follows:
        • Independent living: cottage, townhouse, mobile home, independent living facility;
        • Assisted living facility (residential care facility for the elderly - RCFE);
        • Skilled nursing facility (skilled nursing facility - SNF);
        • Continuum of care facility.
  • SUPPORT SERVICES - Nearby or accompanying support services should be taken into account for any senior housing built:
    • Transit;
    • Social services
      • The impact of importing seniors from outside the county and the attendant drain on existing city/county social services should be assessed, in determining the overall “internal” need for senior housing.
      • The wait-lists of current city facilities should be factored into the overall picture as to true community need.
  • LOCATION - Because seniors often no longer drive a car, the preferred location for any proposed senior housing should be close to:
        • public transit if there is no on-site shuttle;
        • shopping (especially grocery store and pharmacy);
        • a medical facility.

Lesson to be learned: Planning ahead and getting true community input about housing needs can head off a lot of potential problems in the future. It will also result in projects that are designed for the best interests of the community. While Tandem Properties’ proposal sounds like a veritable Disneyland for the elderly, it will bring with it high costs in additional city services. Without additional commercial development instituted to raise more tax revenue, current citizens in Davis may not be able to handle the greater tax burden required.

(Please note the opinions expressed are solely my own, and not stated as a reflection of the view of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission.)

Fraud Alert: An ad appeared in the Davis Enterprise some weeks ago entitled “The Disturbing Truth About Reverse Mortgages!!!”, touting a free report on the subject. I called the number given, only to connect with a recording that wanted me to leave my name and address. Not a single bit of information was imparted to make me aware of what I might be receiving or give some indication if I would even be interested.. I hung up immediately, since I did not want to take the chance of being placed on some mailing list (sometimes known as a ‘sucker list’), which could then be sold to who knows what unsavory financial predator. What is important here is to note the tiny print in the left hand corner which reads “Paid Advertisement”. If there is a product or service for sale, the retailer should be up front about it.

A notice appeared in the June 26th Davis Enterprise, advising the public that a seminar on trusts had been conducted at the Davis Chamber of Commerce office. It wanted to make sure the public did not construe this as a Chamber of Commerce endorsement of whoever rented their facilities for this seminar. My terse comment would be such a notice was nothing more than “too little, too late”. The disclaimer would have been far more appropriate if stated directly before the seminar, on site. A 1.5 in. x 1.5 in. disclaimer buried among huge ads in a newspaper is hardly sufficient. As an attorney, I have dealt with several cases involving these trust mills, and the results have not always been what they should be. Trust mills tend to be a one size fits all operation, where most seniors have no idea what they purchased or whether it is suitable for their particular circumstances.

Elaine Roberts Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs. If you have a remark or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column, please make your observations at the end of this article in the comment section.