An Affordable Home for Seniors

By Phillip Martin

May 16, 2012

Scenes from Dudley House. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

BOSTON — In this area, it can be hard to find housing you can afford: The city ranks among the most expensive in the country. For seniors, the high cost of housing is especially troubling. If they do have housing, the elderly are often isolated and rarely leave their homes — and as a result, they could suffer from depression. But one unique partnership is making a difference for at least a few.

Names in a hat for housing

Under a noontime sun, a street-corner minister preached to no one in particular in Boston’s Dudley Square, telling inattentive commuters that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Just a parable away, an elderly man, Gregoria Rivera, steered his wheelchair toward the entrance of a brand new apartment building and said he prays that one day he can move here.

“I live across the street over there in that building," he said. "I don’t like it over there. It’s only one room.“

The Dudley House apartment complex is just a few months old and it contrasts with much of the mid–20th-century architecture in this area — and everyone, it seems, wants to live here, said David Morgan, president of the board of directors of Central Boston Elder Services next door.

“There was a lottery — no relationship to the Massachusetts lottery — but there was a lottery and they put 450 names into the hat and drew them out and if they qualified they’re here," he said.

In the community room of the Dudley House — a 56-unit modern building — Jonetta Wiles recalled the moment she got a phone call 3 months ago telling her that her name had been plucked from a drawing for a chance to move into this building in the heart of Roxbury.

“I was shocked, first of all, and then I was really excited. 'Cause when they asked me if I was interested I practically came through the phone. I wanted to move so badly,” she said.

Wiles was joined in the community room by three other local women over 62.

“I saw it being built," said Shirley Hargrow. "I used to come by every day on a school bus cause I worked for the Metco program as a bus monitor. And when they dropped me off to go home I just walked across the street and was inquiring and I was, I guess, proud that I got selected.”

A desire for safety spurred Cynthia Lopes’ move to Dudley House:

“In Dorchester there was a drive-by shooting," she said. "So I knew that I couldn’t stay three anymore. I wasn’t safe. And then to go from that — to this!”

Assessing the need

This is a 7-story building designed by world-class architects. This structure cost millions; the funds came from the City of Boston and also included federal stimulus, tax credits and HUD housing money.
The need for rental housing for many of Boston’s 60,000 elderly residents cannot be underestimated. Like most of the residents here, Wiles worked hard her entire life to make ends meet in Boston, but her Mission Hill neighborhood, once an eyesore, became more and more gentrified. Pizza joints were taken over by latte-driven cafes and housing costs soared.

“I had a nice unit but the major concern for me was rent. Over the course of 22 years, of course, the rents would go up every year and finally it got to the point where it was just unsustainable, almost $1200," she said. "I was on Social Security and I was only working part-time and I just couldn’t afford it anymore. So this building is a blessing.”

Boston is the third-most-expensive housing rental market in the country, surpassed only by New York and San Francisco. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $1200 to $1600 a month. For a large percentage of elderly people on fixed incomes, paying this amount approaches the impossible.

“I never thought that I would live here,” said Lopes, “ and then when I got the call I talked with my daughter because I didn’t think that I wanted to live in Dudley. But once you get here, people tell me when they come to visit, it’s like going to a luxury condo. I said, ‘Good — That’s fine with me!’ You know, I’ve never lived in a place that was brand new. There wasn’t even any dust."

From homeless to Dudley House

New housing studies suggest that rental pricing is a prime reason why more of the areas elderly are being pushed into the streets. A 2011 Harvard Medical School Study concluded that more than 7,000 men, women and children in the Boston are homeless and that a significant percentage are over 55.
Of the 56 people who won the lottery for a chance to live at Dudley House, Morgan said 11 percent were previously homeless.

“There were a few units targeted for the homeless elderly," he said. "There’s supposedly a huge need and I think it’s because of real estate prices and people who though even maybe they have their mortgages paid off taxes are so high.”

Phil Hyde, whose last residence was a church basement, was one of them.“I spent too much money and I could not afford the rent where I was staying and so I basically was homeless,” he said.

70-year-old Hyde is not your stereotypical picture of a homeless man. He’s a Harvard University graduate. But his situation, in the view of some housing advocates, illustrates how high rents can lead to elder homelessness for even those thought to fall outside the standard rubric of poverty.
In recent weeks, instead of starting his day from a Cambridge shelter, he has left his new Dudley House apartment and taken the No. 1 bus to the Back Bay where he attends an Episcopalian Church each Sunday. Hyde waited 14 months for his name to come up in a Boston Housing Authority pool and another few months before he was selected to live in the new building.
He counted himself lucky.

“The tragedy, of course, is that it is endless waits — I mean for this list," he said. "The people I was at the shelter with, some of them have been waiting for far over a year for their name to come up on the list.”

Looking at the community level

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents the Dudley Square area, said the Dudley House should not be the only modern, efficient housing alternative for the elderly, and especially for those who are homeless through no fault of their own. He said the notion of short-term housing was short-sighted.

“It is so much more cost-efficient to house folks in permanent housing rather than spending $100 a day in motels and then coming out at the end of the month with housing costs where you could live in the core of the city of Boston,” he said.

Jackson said the Dudley House has also had another impact as well. Perhaps in a twist of irony, with the new senior housing facility, it is older people that are helping to revitalize Dudley, a once severely run-down neighborhood. Some of the merchants in the area, such as the owners of the 99 Cent Store on Washington Street, said that Dudley House residents are among their best new customers.

It’s all part of what the residents of Dudley House call their expanded community. Said resident Betty Harris, “I know God put us all together for a reason.”

Harris, who walks unsteadily, said this facility has literally helped her get back on her feet. She credited the community of new elderly residents that surround her; friends like Wiles, Lopes and Hargrow.

They take care of her and each other, she said, going for walks twice a day for 10 minutes each. "And then I walk every Saturday," she said. "Right, ladies? I have to walk everyday so that I won’t get blood clots.”

Hargrow said Dudley House provides something that could never be replicated.  "We see each other face to face. On a daily basis we can see each other’s smile. Know each other’s strengths. Know each other’s weaknesses. We can really communicate," she said. "It’s a wonderful feeling. And I think its great that a place like this can be here for the seniors. And I think because we’re a community within a community, we’re all beginning to appreciate how Boston is changing. Especially in Dudley Square.”

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