A woman stocks shelves at a food pantry.

North Penn Commons called a model for affordable senior housing projects

Carole Rossi works in the Schwenckfed Manor's General Store in Lansdale on Jan. 23, 2015. Photo by David Maialetti/Staff Photographer. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

By Jason Laughlin

Lansdale, PA - The Lansdale project may still be a year from completion, but people in upper Montgomery County and across the state are already bubbling about what may be its most striking and unusual feature:

The front door.

When North Penn Commons is finished, the door will be the lone entranceway for seemingly disparate groups: members exercising at the local YMCA, seniors living in affordable housing, and visitors to a soup kitchen, Manna on Main Street.

The design is intentional, part of a bid to reach across age and economic barriers to integrate struggling older people into the community. The tenant partners, which also include a senior center, expect to integrate their services in a way none have done before.

"We can do food drives to help Manna, they can do cooking lessons," said Bob Gallagher, CEO of North Penn YMCA. "Somebody that lives in that senior housing, they can be a volunteer at the Y."

Already, officials are calling it a model for affordable senior housing projects in the state.

Pennsylvania has the nation's fourth-oldest population, with nearly 2.7 million people 60 and older, according to the state Department of Aging. Almost a third of them - more than 800,000 - live in Philadelphia and its four neighboring Pennsylvania counties, and, of them, approximately 18 percent live at or below the poverty line, according the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

An additional 83,500 are living at 200 percent of the poverty line, $23,340 a year.

Many would qualify for affordable housing, a need the Lansdale project hopes to meet.

Ground was broken last year on the $27 million development. A new four-story building will add 60 senior residences, food services, and a senior center to the existing Lansdale Area Family YMCA on East Main Street.

North Penn Commons was selected from about a dozen projects statewide in 2013 for $11 million in federal tax credits based on its innovative design, said Holly Glauser, director of development for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

"We looked at this as a way to incentivize developers to think more creatively on what's important in a housing development," she said.

The project has attracted attention from others in the region who provide services to disadvantaged seniors.

"When you have to go through a door that has above it 'Welfare Office, Food Stamp Office,' that's demoralizing to many people," said Russell Johnson, president of the North Penn Community Health Foundation, which brought together the partners in the development. "It underscores what they don't have instead of what they do have. They're residents of our community, albeit challenged, but they're our neighbors."

The seniors who benefit from housing like North Penn Commons often find themselves poor for the first time after retiring.

They include Carole Rossi, 75, who worked three jobs while a single parent of four children. All her adult life she paid the bills, she said, but after retiring at 70, her savings and Social Security payments were too small to cover rent.

"There are plenty of senior places, but you can't touch them with our income," Rossi said.

She lived with relatives in Pennsylvania and in Florida before being accepted into Schwenckfeld Manor, a senior development in Lansdale operated by Advanced Living, a nonprofit that will also operate much of North Penn Commons. Her money was so tight then she wasn't sure she would be able to travel back to Florida to retrieve her belongings.

Her story is not atypical. Many elderly find their fixed incomes inadequate in the face of higher property taxes, unexpected home repairs, and sudden health problems. Some become trapped in houses they've owned for years but can't afford to maintain, house-rich and cash-poor.

The aging poor in suburban communities also face challenges unlike those in the city because public transportation is less accessible, destinations are farther apart, and suburban neighborhoods can be less close-knit than those in cities, said Ellena Jonas, director of housing for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

"I would almost think that the folks are more isolated in the suburbs," she said. "At least here you're at a close proximity to your neighbors. I would take a guess and say there would be more services available in the city."

Though exact numbers are difficult to determine, there are many thousands more seniors in need of affordable housing than there are homes available in the region.

County agencies estimate there are about 10,000 affordable senior housing units in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties.

There are more than 111,000 people over 60 living on $23,340 or less in the same region. Not all those people are in need of housing, but enough are that Advanced Living has in some cases a seven-year wait for a spot in one of its developments, management said.

The North Penn Commons development may be challenging to replicate, though.

"You really do need a pretty savvy developer who knows where all these buckets of money are," Johnson said.

It took coordinating with the YMCA, which owned the land that was once a bowling alley, the other three partners, and five major funding sources - including the tax credits. They include state and county contributions, bank loans, and a capital campaign with a $5 million target.

A 24-unit affordable senior home in Coatesville, Brandywine Commons, has under the same roof apartments and physical and behavioral health providers. Organizers for that project recalled the challenges they faced in coordinating the financing among partners.

"They take a long time to get the financing together," said Frances Sheehan, president and CEO of of Brandywine Health Foundation in Bucks County. "It takes a long time to get the land."

The seniors who will eventually call North Penn Commons home will likely be similar to the women at Schwenckfeld Manor. They have sweet grandmotherly manners, and surprising stories of toughness and hardship.

Rossi recalled volunteering to work for a lawyer so she could learn to be a paralegal while holding down jobs driving a truck and working reception for a manufacturing plant.

Her neighbor at Schwenckfeld Manor, Jeanne Diehl, 77, talked about waiting for her seven children to grow up before ending a troubled marriage. Dolores Stewart, 65, said she spent some time homeless in Boston.

When age caught up with them, they faced the uncertainty of how and where they would live.

"I love it here," Diehl said of the affordable housing development she calls home. "I'm on my own. I can do what I want to do."

From Jason Laughlin. (2015, January 26). North Penn Commons called a model for affordable senior housing projects. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from:  http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20150126_North_Penn_Commons_called_a_model_for_affordable_senior_housing_projects.html