Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Senior residents of the affordable housing facility Lesley Towers apartments gather in an entryway after an informational meeting concerning their rental rates.
Trying to keep low-income senior housing affordable while at the same time saving for infrastructure repairs is a balance on which the 189 residents at San Mateo’s Lesley Towers are teetering.
The apartments were constructed in 1963 with the help of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan, said Sarah Lambert, executive director of the nonprofit property owner Lesley Senior Communities. Now that the mortgage is almost paid off, HUD is offering another loan if residents participate in the Senior Project Rental Assistance Contract program that could end up raising or lowering their rent as early as June, Lambert said.
Residents gathered for an informational meeting Monday to hear about potential changes to their rent prices as a result of LSC’s federal assistance application.
Robert Mackey, 69, has been living at Lesley Towers for more than four years and believes his rent will increase due to the HUD agreement.
“It’s a change that we weren’t expecting … all of a sudden we’re hit with this. A lot of people are kind of panicky,” Mackey said.
Participating in HUD’s program may be the only way Lesley Towers will be upgraded, Lambert said. LSC is hoping to bring the building up to current seismic safety guidelines, rid the building of asbestos, upgrade the electrical and plumbing system, fix the roof, update the fire alarm and sprinkler system and reinstate transportation services among other things, Lambert said.
“What we haven’t been able to do is squirrel away enough money over the years to make [infrastructure] repairs,” Lambert said. “There’s a lot of things that need to be taken care of and the current rent doesn’t support that.”
There’s about $20,000 left on the Lesley Towers mortgage and it would be allowed to draw from its equity if it follows HUD guidelines; including residents’ pay a third of their income toward rent, Lambert said.
HUD funded the property on the premise it would remain as affordable housing. Now that the mortgage is almost paid off, this is another way for it to ensure the building will continue to serve low-income seniors, Lambert said.
“Our mission is to provide affordable housing … [HUD] wants to know how we plan to survive another 50 years as an affordable housing service,” Lambert said.
But following HUD guidelines may mean some residents will end up paying more for the rental of their studio or one-bedroom apartments. According to the LSC website, residents currently pay as low as $421 for a studio and up to $828 for a one-bedroom in the property nestled up against San Mateo’s Central Park on Laurel Avenue.
Under the HUD program, apartment rates will be raised to fair market value, about $1,191 for a studio and $1,551 for a one-bedroom, according to an informational handout provided by LSC at Monday’s meeting. Under HUD guidelines, those who qualify will pay a third of their income with the remainder being subsidized by the program.
Residents’ income varies significantly; some residents’ see less than $10,000 per year and others upwards of $90,000, Lambert said. Under HUD guidelines, an individual who makes less than $62,050 will pay no more a third of their rent; however, most residents will see an increase in their rent unless they make less than $21,600 per year.
The cost of living in San Mateo County is extremely high and, as an affordable senior housing facility, Lesley Towers needs to serve those who would otherwise struggle to live in the area, Lambert said.
“We really attempt to house people with incomes that make it difficult to live in the county,” Lambert said.
For some residents, their rent will actually decrease due to Lesley Towers’ participation in the HUD program, Lambert said.
Between $35,000 monthly utility bills and the need to update the property, infrastructure repairs would not be possible without this loan, Lambert said.
Although residents don’t pay any utility bills, their tenancy is conditional upon participating in a $297 per month meal program, an expense that is not deductible or included in their new rental rates.
Residents are now required to submit yearly financial information documenting their gross income to establish their HUD eligibility. They will, however, be allowed to deduct an array of medical expenses, which can be extremely high for the elderly.
“Any verified medical expense can be used as a deduction,” said Galyn Evans, LSC occupancy specialist. “We have people here in this building that sometimes have more than $5,000 a year in medical expenses. So it can substantially reduce their rent.”
The majority of those who have signed up are considered very low-income and are eligible for subsidies, Lambert said.
Norma Turner, 85, has been living at Lesley Towers for 15 years. She helps man the front desk and has made many friends during her residency.
“I don’t think my rent will be raised. I’ve enjoyed living here all these years and I hope to continue to live here,” Turner said.
Jean Williams, 94, has lived at Lesley Towers as long as her close friend Turner. The cost of living in San Mateo is extremely high and, although there is a good deal of uncertainty with the new program, she has high hopes, Williams said.
LSC wants seniors to have the opportunity to live at Lesley Towers for as long as they desire and, thanks to a grant, will be converting the second floor to assisted living apartments, Lambert said. Yet construction has been put on hold until HUD funded construction is completed, Lambert said.
Theresa Menzel has enjoyed 11 years at Lesley Towers and hopes the new program will allow her to remain within her budget.
“It makes me nervous, because the whole idea of living here is because it’s supposed to be low rent,” Menzel said.
LSC is committed to providing affordable housing for seniors as they age. But keeping up the property is a necessary expense if it plans on continuing for future generations of the county’s elderly population, Lambert said.
“I imagine it’s not going to be easy in the short term for the residents,” Lambert said. “But in the long term, for the residents and for those who will succeed them, it will be better.”
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