Apartments for elderly fill niche


Lucelia Henderson has spent six years looking for the right place to live, moving from apartment to apartment, one too expensive, another too cramped or rundown, another too vulnerable to crime for an elderly woman on her own. Every year or so, she'd move, then start a new search.

Nothing worked. Retirement communities offered security and neighbors her own age, but they cost too much. Regular apartments lacked security and, sometimes, simple conveniences like elevators.

In early February, the 79-year-old great-grandmother moved again. This time was different.

"This is the place," said Mrs. Henderson, beaming and leading the way through a tidy, corner apartment at newly built Randallstown Terrace. She pointed out ample kitchen cabinets and two sets of double windows framing her jewel-tone armchairs and sofa. "When I saw this, I said, 'God has answered my prayers.' I have never seen nothing like this. If I had, I'd have been in it."

The three-story apartment complex off Liberty Road, designed for older residents with a secured front entrance, elevators and emergency pull cords, represents a new breed in senior housing. It's one that's expected to proliferate as developers respond to a growing segment of the elderly population.

In the specialized senior market, such rental communities offer an affordable alternative to nursing homes that emphasize health care or upscale, resort-like retirement communities with a range of amenities, activities and staff.

At apartments like Randallstown Terrace, tenants won't find formal dining rooms, multiple lounges, swimming pools, health spas or staff-organized group activities. Typically, they will find a scaled-down staff -- often a resident manager, maintenance worker and receptionist -- and limited public space, such as a lounge, a kitchen, laundry rooms or other meeting rooms. There, residents or outside volunteer groups can plan their own activities.

That kind of arrangement keeps costs down -- and suits senior citizens like Ida Virginia Garrettson just fine. Relaxing in the lounge at Randallstown Terrace, Mrs. Garrettson gestured to the plump-cushioned sofas, bookshelf-lined walls, rows of long tables and community kitchen beyond and concluded, "This is plenty. Who would want more than this?"

Mrs. Garrettson, 87, moved from her nearby split-level house after 22 years because she could no longer clean seven rooms or negotiate the stairs. Now she says she has everything she needs in a one-bedroom apartment with a U-shaped kitchen. And the price is right -- apartments average $410 a month.

Such rental communities have been available in Maryland only a few years and haven't become as prevalent as nursing homes or continuing care communities, a mix of homes and nursing units for seniors both independent and frail, said Janet Henry, senior consultant with Legg Mason Realty Group. But affordable rentals appear to be fulfilling a need; most apartments have waiting lists by the time they open, she said.

The Shelter Group, the Baltimore-based developer of Randallstown Terrace, built its first elderly rental project in 1989 -- Park Terrace in Dundalk -- then built similar apartments in Towson, Catonsville, Rosedale, Columbia and Laurel. Tenants must be 62 or older and have an annual income of no more than $23,712 for a couple and $20,748 for a single person.

"There's this tremendous demand for the apartments," said Patrick Duffy, marketing director for Shelter. "As soon as we open the doors, we rent all the units. The rents are lower than rental properties in the immediate area "

The apartments usually draw tenants locally, often people who can no longer maintain a house or who come from apartments that no longer serve their needs, Mr. Duffy said.

Several senior complexes are under development in the Washington area. Developer Humphrey-Stavrou Associates Inc. opened one in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County in 1992 and another in Largo in January and is building two more in Bowie and Oxon Hill. The 110-unit buildings feature movie theaters, lounges, arts and crafts and exercise rooms and offices for visiting physicians. Rents run from $550 to $670 a month, with maximum incomes at $31,000 for a couple and $26,000 for a single person.

The developer plans to build two more communities in Montgomery and Prince George's counties next year.

"We saw a real need," said N. Stephen Stavrou, president of Humphrey-Stavrou. "We've tried to satisfy a niche with healthy, elderly people who are [often] widowed. This creates affordable housing for them."

Builders can keep rents lower thanks to tax credits that are sold to investors and low-interest loans from the state, county and private sources that finance the projects.

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