The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 29, 2007


Senior housing in Chelmsford — a model for Carlisle?

What's the best way to bring affordable housing to Carlisle? There are dozens of federal, state and private entities offering programs with varying purposes, requirements and restrictions. Wading through the options is a time-consuming and frustrating job, particularly as the rules and their interpretations are constantly changing. In addition, no amount of paper research equals the experience of going through a project and seeing where problems emerge.

But Carlisle is fortunate: we have helpful neighbors with extensive experience in affordable housing. A few weeks ago it was Bedford's representatives who offered their experience with public-private partnerships (see "Summit shows path to becoming an affordable community," Mosquito, May 18.) Last week it was Chelmsford who sent David Hedison, Director of the Chelmsford Housing Authority, and Connie Donahoe, Chelmsford Director of Housing and Community, to visit the Carlisle Housing Authority and answer questions about developing housing for seniors and the mentally disabled.

Senior housing experience

Carlisle's Housing Authority is looking at models for developing senior housing, and Chelmsford offered a few. Of particular interest is a 51-unit senior development which provides a range of support services. Completed in March, 2005, it came about as a partnership between the Chelmsford Housing Authority and Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and was financed through "the largest Department of HUD (Housing and Urban Development ) 202 fund reservation in 2000," according to information distributed by the Chelmsford speakers.

The HUD website explains that the Section 202 program "provides very low-income elderly with options that allow them to live independently but in an environment that provides support activities such as cleaning, cooking, transportation, etc. . . HUD provides capital advances to finance the construction, rehabilitation or acquisition with or without rehabilitation of structures that will serve as supportive housing for very low-income elderly persons, including the frail elderly, and provides rent subsidies for the projects to help make them affordable." The website notes the capital advances do not have to be repaid as long as the project serves the low-income elderly for 40 years.

The Chelmsford development is clustered housing providing nursing assistance, housekeeping, one meal per day, and the services of a social worker. Services are contracted out and paid for through Medicaid, and some are also available to the general public. Income, age, assets, and abilities are considered. Currently there is a waiting list for the facility, and openings are assigned by lottery, with 70% reserved for local preference as allowed by law.

Another Chelmsford project of interest to Carlisle involves 4 1/2 acres adjacent to a senior center which is being developed using tax credits supplied by the federal government and administered through the state. The tax credits can be used by a developer to lower costs. Although complicated to apply for and administer, the tax credit program provides flexibility in the type of housing, allowing larger units and amenities such as laundry facilities and dishwashers not allowed under HUD 202.The Chelmsford project will include 37 to 50 rental units with a café and exercise facilities. Solar systems will be used for some energy needs, allowing the project to receive grants directed to projects with a "green" component.

Programs for under-served populations

Donahoe described a program pioneered by her group to fill unused places in group homes by moving capable seniors out of nursing homes. In many cases, seniors end up in nursing homes because of a lack of finances and alternatives. The Chelmsford program found individuals "with the desire and ability with augmented services to leave the nursing home" and integrated them back into the community. The facilities comprise four bedrooms with shared living and dining facilities. Support services are provided, and the cost is half that of a nursing home.

Hedison also described the town's work with a number of agencies to provide housing for the mentally disabled. Group homes and support services are made available through the North Shore Lifelinks, formerly ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) funded by the Department of Mental Retardation. HUD Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize rent for those with low incw e, were issued to agencies working with clients.

The typical configuration is three- or four-bedroom group homes, each with an on-site supervisor. Currently 46 beds are provided, with each bed counting as an affordable unit toward 40B requirements. Although there was initially some opposition, "Now they see it's like any other house in the neighborhood."

Setbacks and pitfalls

However, an attempt to work with the Department of Mental Health on housing for the mentally ill, similar to what had been done with the mentally disabled, ran aground. Privacy laws prevented local authorities from learning the nature of a client's mental health issue. This made it impossible to segregate the population in a way that services could be offered, "If you can't ask the nature of the disability, how do you provide for it?" asked Hedison, shaking his head.

Hedison noted a number of other pitfalls awaiting those navigating the waters of affordable housing. For example, although 40B defines senior housing as over 55, the state agencies prefer age restrictions over 60, and HUD requires a 62 and up restriction. State agencies also prefer family housing, and that is reflected in tax credit issuance, "You can't get a 9% tax credit on senior housing. It's for family only."

In addition, what constitutes local preference can be squishy. Hedison says that "HUD came down on us" for extending local preference to children and parents of residents, even though other towns include those categories. Now local preference in Chelmsford includes only "those who live or work in Chelmsford. We decided to take the conservative approach."

Another issue is the difference between "assisted living," which is regulated, and what Donahoe calls "supportive living" offered in the Chelmsford units. The former refers to private housing with limited assistance for those with low income. Once finances are depleted, a resident typically must find other housing. It is also highly regulated such that an on-site nurse "can't take blood pressures but must contract with an outside agency." With supportive living, "we forge relationships with elder services and providers" to support low-income seniors over the long term.

Village Court a HUD 202?

A question regarding adding units to Carlisle's Village Court (senior housing across from the Carlisle School) prompted Hedison to note that "Our greatest success has been with projects of 20 to 25 units or less." Housing Trust member Greg Peterson explained that Village Court would like to hook into the school septic system which is "oversized as required by Title 5." If the hook-in were to happen, land would be freed up for expansion of the senior complex. Donahoe suggested pursuing HUD 202 funds, and Hedison became animated as he imagined using such funds to modernize the whole facility, add more units, and include new common facilities.

With a neighborly "Let's plan on getting together on our campus," Hedison noted he would like to continue the relationship as Carlisle moves forward "and tell you stuff nobody else is telling you." Musing on how best to educate the Carlisle group, Hedison threw out, "We could schedule a tour . . ?" "What's a good time for you?" quickly responded Elizabeth Barnett, Carlisle Housing Assistant, and organizer of the housing meetings. It was agreed a tour of Chelmsford senior housing will be arranged, perhaps during the next "Senior Supper."

Eugenia Harris of the Carlisle Housing Authority later underlined the value of the session. "I want to look into the idea of tax credits and get educated on that financing vehicle" as well as HUD 202 and other grant programs. She also noted the ideas regarding Village Court. "It's very helpful to talk to people who have completed projects, know the players, and can make useful suggestions."

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito