Co-op apartments offer affordable option for low-income seniors

"Just because you retire doesn't mean you have to sit in the rocking chair."

After 21 years on her feet packing tea for McCormick & Co., Phyllis Williams thought she was ready to rest, but bored just a few years after retiring, she opened a flower shop in North Baltimore.

She rooted for love when guys stopped by to pick up a rose for their lady and mourned the loss when families came for arrangements to top caskets.

Age and health eventually got the better of her, and about 12 years ago, Williams turned the shop over to her son. In 2014, after a spine and neck surgery left her dependent on a walker, Williams started looking to downsize to a senior community.

At the Wabash Estates Co-op in Grove Park, Williams, 78, found a place that lets her indulge her love of chatting with neighbors and being part of a community. The 57-unit rental building for low-income seniors operates like a housing cooperative where everyone has a job. Residents are responsible for maintaining the community kitchen, answering phones and, in Williams' case, helping run the sundries shop, where residents stop in to buy coffee creamer and candy bars.

In a chair next to the counter, Williams is in her element, visiting with customers and making shopping lists of the items they request.

"It is nice to get back to that," Williams said. "I enjoy people — just talking to them, listening to them. I seem to gravitate toward that."

The aging Baby Boomer generation, known for its fierce independence but increasingly in need of smaller, more supportive housing, could be a boon for CSI, which owns Wabash Estates and 10 other low-income senior housing properties in the Baltimore area, plus 47 more in California, Massachusetts and Michigan. Unlike traditional co-ops where residents share ownership, CSI's properties are designed for renters aged 62 and older who qualify for subsidized housing.

The nation's over-65 population is expected to soar by about two-thirds to 79 million people by 2035, with number of low-income seniors growing even faster, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

CSI says it is poised for growth in Baltimore, where demand for affordable housing is strong and where there is an opportunity for the company to acquire and renovate older senior properties, a way to add to its portfolio without building new.

"What we offer, in a nutshell, is a cooperative community, the opportunity to have quality housing, build great relationships and have control over your home," said Brandon Moss, Maryland regional manager for Michigan-based CSI Support & Development. "Those are just things you're not going to be able to get everywhere."

About 4 million seniors qualify for federal rent subsidies, meaning they are 62 or older and earn less than half the area's median income. But only 36 percent of them, or about 1.4 million, receive that rental assistance due to limited funding, according to a study of how the senior population and their housing needs will change over the next 20 years, published in December by the Harvard housing center.

As the senior population swells, the number of low-income seniors who qualify for federal rent assistance is expected to nearly double to 7.6 million by 2035, increasing demand for an already-strained affordable housing stock and the limited federal funds to subsidize them, the report found.

"All these trends point to what could be a less rosy picture," said Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at the Harvard housing center and the report's lead author.

The trends have created strong demand for properties such as those run by CSI in Maryland, which are fully leased. Wabash Estates filled up the day it started accepting applications in 2014 and accumulated a waitlist 100 people long.

Aubrey Smith, 66, and Lela Andoleo, 71, were among the first to move in.

The two friends were increasingly uncomfortable with the noise and new faces coming to the high rise where they both lived, as families moved into units previously occupied by seniors.

"The building was starting to change, it was no longer just seniors," Smith said.

Smith and Andoleo said they feel much more at home now.

Andoleo is the president of the building's board and Smith is its treasurer. They spend their days manning the front office, leading community meetings and relaxing in their apartments.

Each one-bedroom unit at Wabash Estates is just 540 square feet, with a kitchenette and wall of windows in the living room. Wabash Estates residents pay 30 percent of their adjusted income as rent. Other CSI properties developed with tax credits charge a flat monthly rent of between $500 and $600.

"It's not luxury housing," said Smith, gesturing into her living room, which she decorated in teal and beige, "but it's safety and it's affordability."

Despite the market opportunity, CSI hasn't built anything in Maryland in a few years, largely because of deep cuts to HUD development grants, which the company relied on to build new facilities.

CSI was founded in the 1940s as a milk co-op and transitioned to affordable housing in the 1960s, shortly after HUD launched its Section 202 program, which has financed thousands of affordable housing units for seniors. But when the federal government cut funding for developing new housing through the program in 2014, CSI had to reassess its approach.

The organization spent a few years refinancing and renovating its existing properties, and settled on a path forward that relies on acquiring existing properties and developing new housing with tax credits.

The company is in talks to acquire a few properties in the Baltimore area, but CSI's Moss said he couldn't discuss details because no contracts have been signed.

CSI is focused on medium- to large-sized properties, with between 75 and 300 units, he said.

"We try to grow smart," Moss said. "Right now, we are looking to acquire or build any senior property we can."

Growth isn't always easy in affordable housing.

For one, tax credits can be hard to come by, said Chickie Grayson, president and CEO of Enterprise Homes Inc., which develops affordable rental properties. Dozens of developers compete for the credits, submitting proposals for tens of millions of dollars in housing projects. Only a fraction get funded, she said.

"The only reason we don't do more is the funds aren't available," Grayson said. "Everything we build we have to get the funding on a competitive basis. And there's a limited amount of money that's available."

And while there is demand for affordable housing for seniors, it is outweighed by the need for family housing in the area, said Barbara Samuels, a managing attorney for fair housing at ACLU.

"I would never say there's not a need or demand for it; there's always a need and a demand, but it's not the most pressing," Samuels said.

Still, Wabash Estates' residents, such as Evelina Rowuls, are glad CSI has pursued projects like their home.

Rowuls, a 70-year-old retired home health aide, answers phones and files paperwork in the leasing office a few hours two days a week, though often she stops in more frequently, to make sure everything is in order.

"Just because you retire," she said, looking up from a stack of papers, "doesn't mean you have to sit in the rocking chair."

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