Elder Islanders need housing, too
As Islanders grow older, incomes are frequently fixed and health care costs often are not. This presents special challenges to making ends meet, and one of the greatest is finding an affordable place on the Island in which to live.
Joyce Stiles-Tucker, director of the Tisbury Council on Aging, recently organized a forum for seven panelists to discuss housing options for Island seniors. In the March 27 session at the Tisbury Senior Center, the panelists agreed that several options are available, but that they fall far short of meeting the community's needs.
Carol Lashnits, director of Island Elderly Housing (IEH), said her agency currently provides 150 apartment units on the Vineyard, with 15 more under construction - five on a corner of the agency's Hillside Village site in Tisbury, and another 10 on Wing Road in Oak Bluffs, on a property donated by the late Marguerite Bergstrom, a longtime advocate for elder housing on the Island.
Ms. Lashnits recalled how her 30-year involvement with elder housing began with the formation of a committee in 1976: "We were feeling," she said, "what was the point of providing a Meals on Wheels program and casework services and transportation if people were in situations so dire, spending so much money for housing and living in one room in the winter because that's all they could afford to heat? What kind of quality of life could people have until they had affordable, decent housing?
"So we just jumped in - Margaret Love, Marguerite Bergstrom and myself, and more people who joined us later. We got ourselves incorporated as a nonprofit, applied for funding from the federal Farmer's Home Administration, and built Hillside Village in Vineyard Haven." Later came Woodside Village in Oak Bluffs, built with HUD funding in 1993 and 1994 and subsequently expanded.
The beauty of the IEH apartments, Ms. Lashnits said, is that they come with federal rental subsidies. "Nobody ever pays more than 30 percent of their monthly income on the rent, and this includes utilities as well, so it's a really good deal," she said. "There are a lot of strings attached, and it gets worse all the time, but it's the price you pay for being able to provide this kind of housing."
The subsidy makes these IEH apartments highly desirable. And Hillside Village is also allowed to take non-elderly people with disabilities. "At Hillside Village," said Ms. Lashnits, "we have a huge waiting list of probably 100 people, and half of them are non-elderly, disabled people, because there isn't anywhere else for them to go, really."
Dorothy Young, property manager for Island Elderly Housing, said that lately, only two or three apartments are coming open at Hillside Village each year. If you aren't disabled, you can file an application with IEH for housing on the day you turn 62 years old. The people now coming to the top of the waiting list, Ms. Young said, have been on the list since 2000 or 2001.
Because rents are based on income, every tenant of IEH pays a different monthly amount. The apartments are technically available for both low- and middle-income seniors, but in actuality, because of the level of need and scarcity of apartments, all of them are going to low-income tenants. Ms. Young said the average tenant pays between $200 and $250 per month. Income limits to be eligible for this sort of subsidized housing are $25,100 for a single person and $28,700 for two.
The populations at Hillside Village and Woodside have been aging over the years, Ms. Lashnits said, which has changed the work her agency does. "Our tenants moved in when they were in their early 60s," she said, "and they stay into their 90s. They've needed more services, and we're trying to provide them. It's not assisted living, but it's some of the services that are necessary to keep them independent. We have a van to take our tenants to doctors or the grocery store. We have a meals program that serves dinner three times a week, and dinners are $4 instead of the $10 or $12 it actually costs us. When we have a grant, we do some additional home care and cleaning for people. We have a support services coordinator, like a case manager in a way, and she just makes sure that everybody has what they need - ideally from other agencies, not from us. So that's been our direction over the last couple of years, moving more toward providing more services for our people."
Looking ahead, Ms. Lashnits said her agency has no immediate plans to build more elderly housing beyond the 15 units currently under construction. "We have no more land, and probably no more money, and too many Republicans in the administration," she said to laughter from fellow panelists and the audience. "Unless someone gives us a bit of land - and we've been begging."
Still affordable by Island standards, but higher on the cost scale, are the 27 apartments at the Havenside complex in Tisbury. Manager Susan Phelps said the late Margaret Love and her brother bought the property, an old inn, in the 1960s, tore down the inn and had Havenside built on its sloping hill overlooking the harbor. Rents are currently $700 for the original single-bedroom apartments, $885 for the four two-bedroom units and $590 for the basement apartments, which were added to Havenside by converting what were once community rooms. Those rents are going up soon by about $25 per month, Ms. Phelps said, to meet rising maintenance costs.
You must be 62 to apply at Havenside, which is a nonsmoking property and does not allow pets. The complex is run by a nonprofit agency affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Boston; it has no state or federal subsidies.
Ms. Phelps said that although almost all the apartments have stairs, and though the complex is situated on a sloping hillside, it nevertheless has a number of tenants who are basically shut-ins. She said, "They survive thanks to the wonderful services that the Island provides for elders, help with shopping and bathing and things like that."
Ms. Phelps added, "Naturally, you would expect that we'd have a long waiting list, and we do." That list currently numbers about 90 people, and the people now coming to the top went on in 2000 and 2001. The turnover rate at Havenside is only one or two apartments per year.
Also speaking at the March 27 forum was David Vigneault, director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, who explained that although his agency doesn't concentrate on housing specifically for seniors, it does own the Greenough House in Tisbury, which has six independent living apartments designated for low-income residents age 55 and over. The property has seen no turnover of tenants in the past six years.
Overall, said Mr. Vigneault, the housing authority owns 57 apartments on nine properties in four Island towns. The authority maintains a waiting list, but it's not ordered numerically, because applicants need to be matched with appropriate properties, he said.
Rounding out the panel of speakers were Scott and Ellen Gerstmar, proprietors of the Henrietta Brewer House, an assisted living facility off Causeway Road in Vineyard Haven. The cost to residents at the Brewer House typically runs about $180 to $200 per day, Mr. Gerstmar said. "This is a completely different situation from needing housing," he explained. "This is about needing care. It's a level just shy of long-term care."
Established in 1994, the Brewer House is a private, state-licensed facility that undergoes recertification every two years. It offers round-the-clock care, full meal service, laundry, bathing and bathroom assistance for residents in its 14 private units. "This is for people who need something more than a person peeking in from time to time," said Mr. Gerstmar.
At the end of the hour-long presentation, panelists talked briefly about their perspective on the dimensions of the Island's elder housing programs, and how they measure up against the need.
"We're never going to meet the need," Ms. Lashnits said. "We're just trying to provide a full spectrum of housing - for independent and less-independent people, low-income people, middle-income people, high-income people. You need to have all of that."
"I agree that we're not going to meet the need," said Mr. Vigneault. "But maybe we can stabilize things a little bit."