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Monday, January 12, 2009

Guest Commentary: Response to Davis Enterprise on Senior Housing

Special to The People’s Vanguard of Davis

By Elaine Roberts Musser


It was with some disquiet that I read Claire St. John’s Jan. 2, 2009 article in the Davis Enterprise, entitled “Senior Living”. I immediately fired off a clarification of my position to the Enterprise that same day. I wanted to make clear the reader understood 1) I was speaking as an individual and not in my capacity as the Chair of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission; 2) the issue of how much senior housing is considered necessary in the future was left completely out of the article.

Because I have no 350 word limit as is required in the Enterprise, it would be my privilege to take this opportunity to more fully express my individual opinion. I was asked by Claire St. John what I thought were the most pressing senior needs in Davis. The list I gave included four items: 1) senior housing; 2) transportation; 3) elder abuse prevention; 4) greater fiscal responsibility with respect to city finances.

A lengthy discussion ensued about each item on the list, and what was being done on a city and county level to address these four issues - since I wear both a city and county hat. (I am Chair of the Triad Task Force, the action arm of the Yolo County Commission on Aging & Adult Services.) I mentioned transit mobility training and roving legal clinics at the county level, and talked of my concerns about the city budgeting process. I offered to Claire contact information for various people, to facilitate follow-up discussions - in an effort to assist the research process about her proposed article on senior needs.

However, Ms. St. John’s article only dealt with senior housing, and in my opinion left out the critical element the two of us had thoroughly discussed. How much senior housing is necessary? I doubt anyone would disagree that between now and the year 2013 that some more senior housing options would be nice, as was suggested in the article. Especially to give some desired competition to already existing and very expensive assisted living or continuum of care facilities in Davis. But what specific number of senior housing units would be essential is the million dollar question, the big fat elephant in the room!

In the article, only one number was discussed. The plan under contemplation at the old Covell Village site would have about 800 units of senior housing over ten years. This is an all or nothing approach. Are we only left with two possible options: 800 units or zero growth? In fact a city staff report put the internal need for more senior housing at an estimated maximum of 150 units between now and the year 2013, which from my perspective seems considerably more realistic than 800.

Claire St. John’s article relies heavily on the notion of “downsizing”, i.e. moving to a smaller home to cut down on maintenance needs. Ironically, statistics show that people prefer to remain in their home until the day they die. Often there is an emotional attachment to one’s residence. It is where children are raised and grow up. I doubt very many seniors would want to sell their home for the good of the community just to free up housing for younger families, as was put forward in the article as a reason for development of more senior housing. Nor do many seniors want to live in an age-restricted complex, preferring to live among younger folks.

Some months ago, I strongly advocated for the Davis Senior Citizens Commission to create a set of housing guidelines. The idea was to give developers and the City Council some guidance as to what seniors were interested in, and delineate their concerns. I felt it was time to reverse the trend of new housing in Davis being developer-driven. Such principles that involve sensible planning might also cut down on the divisiveness that seems to come with every discussion in Davis about growth. These guidelines are very close to being finished, but still require a bit of tweaking.

The gist of the guidelines, without getting into specifics, is as follows: 1) provide housing options for seniors of all income levels, with an eye toward meeting “internal” rather than “external” demand; 2) taking into account the fiscal impact of an increase in cost of city services that will entail. Too often residential growth has been initiated under the policy “ build it and they shall come”. Ultimately the developers reap a handsome profit. However, the inherent costs of such a careless strategy have not been fully borne by developers, but rather city taxpayers are forced to make up the difference, which has been substantial.

We are now facing a city budget crisis of epic proportions. Much of that cost is for road repair, and city employee benefits. Costs intrinsic to residential development. To put it bluntly, a massive influx of seniors would further strain the county social welfare system, city fire and ambulance services, city and county medical facilities, etc., above and beyond normal city and county services. Shouldn’t we be trying to further commercial development first, to bring in more tax revenue to pay for existing city services, let alone pay for any new ones created by more development?

Another issue raised in the article is of deep personal concern. “Part of their concept is a community…managed by residents. Maintenance would be paid for out of a homeowners association fund.” As a Board member of the Center for CA Homeowners Association Law (CCHAL), I can tell you from personal experience as an attorney, homeowners associations are rife with opportunities for elder abuse. A homeowners association is not the panacea many assume it is. In fact homeowners associations, and the management companies and debt collection agencies they hire, can perpetrate some of the worst cases of abuse on record. It can include taking away a person’s home and selling it for as little as $1.20; and can result in the death of the homeowner from the stress of any foreclosure proceedings.

I would strongly advise the City Council to tread very carefully, when planning future housing in general, and senior housing in particular. My hope is our commission’s guidelines will serve as a set of talking points, to begin appropriate discussion on projected residential development of senior housing. If the City Council finds these guidelines useful, I would encourage the planning commission to come up with a similar set of guidelines for overall residential development. It serves for better long range planning, should cut down on incivility in community discussion, and will better provide for actual community needs.

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 comment or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed, please make your observations at the end of this article in the comment section.