In the six years she spent looking for a new home, 75-year-old Doris Woods manned her telephone with the pesky persistence of a telemarketer.
She repeatedly called about the progress of new senior housing planned for the site where Memorial Stadium once stood. "Keep my name on that waiting list!" the East Baltimore retiree implored project officials. Once she tried to hand over a deposit, but officials said it wasn't time.
In November, she and her husband, John, 88, realized their dream.
They became the first residents at the 110-unit Ednor Apartments, part of the $50 million Stadium Place development on 33rd Street, which includes a YMCA and another low-income senior apartment building on the site of the former football and baseball stadium. A resident secured the final spot at Ednor late last month.
City officials working with the elderly say Woods' struggle is common for those seeking decent, affordable housing.
"We've been told by a lot of seniors, wherever they go, there is an extended waiting list" for housing, said John P. Stewart, executive director of the city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education.
Baltimore is home to more than 120,000 people over age 60, and more than 50 percent have annual incomes of less than $11,400, according to city figures. Callers to the commission's hot line often mention housing needs among their top four problems, he said, with health care usually the foremost concern.
Assessing the need
For many older people, retiring to a community equipped to meet their needs is impossible on a fixed income, officials said. Services that seniors require, including medical care, are typically only offered at expensive assisted-living or retirement communities.
Stewart acknowledged his office doesn't yet have a good handle on exactly how many seniors need affordable housing. Over the next six months, Stewart expects his staff to come up with a list of recommendations for improving housing for the elderly, based on an assessment of the housing stock and feedback from focus groups. Meanwhile the commission plans to print and distribute 2,000 brochures by the end of March that describe existing housing options.
At Stadium Place, demand was so great that a lottery was held to choose new tenants, including Woods, from thousands of applicants.
"There is a recognition of the need for affordable housing," said the Rev. John R. Sharp, who until recently oversaw the Stadium Place project for Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a church-based nonprofit organization. "But society still doesn't put the needs of seniors at the top of their priorities.
"Often philanthropies want to give money to the future, to children and youth," he added.
At Stadium Place, the 54,000-square-foot YMCA and 180 units of low-income housing for seniors, including the 110 units at Ednor, are open.
Still to come on the 30-acre site are several more residential components for seniors -- 74 more rental units for low-income elderly, an assisted-living facility and 100 condominiums that will be sold at market rates and an undetermined number of market-rate apartments.
Excited and waiting
The project should be complete by 2010, according to Mitchell Posner, executive director of Govans Ecumenical Development Corp.
Herman Lee Smith, 63, said he can't wait.
He and his wife, Joyce, 62, live in an apartment on York Road, but Stadium Place, he said, "is a much better place, I think. It looks much more secure."
He applied for a spot in October, and the lease on his current apartment runs out this month.
When Smith was young, he worked at the stadium, serving soft drinks to the crowds.
"I didn't know how it was going to turn out after they got rid of the stadium," he said. "But it's nice. Boy, it's nice."
The Woods' wait for a place at Ednor is over, but their struggles continue. Doris Woods has had five heart-bypass operations, and her husband has difficulty breathing.
And, like many seniors, she's trying to cope with bills, even though the new rent of $630, plus utilities, is less than the $800 at her old apartment.
"But it's still expensive," she said, giving a tour of her bright, two-bedroom apartment overlooking a large grassy field. "Something is going to have to give.
"I might have to learn to live without cable."