Albuquerque’s Shalom House is among the dwindling number of affordable senior-housing developments in the U.S. But a vacuum in senior housing remains as Albuquerque’s Jewish artists and spiritual seekers age. Shalom House is the taller building to the right, the lower building set back to the left is the Jewish Community Center. Photos © 2016 by Diane Joy Schmidt
1st place – Health articles (2) New Mexico Press Women, 2017, Judge’s comment: “This entry earned a first-place award based on the article, “Albuquerque, Is it a place Jews can retire?” Well organized, clearly stated thesis, concise, clear writing mark this article.” entered along with “Studies on Dementia – Q&A with Dr. Gary Rosenberg“
Albuquerque – Is it a place where Jews can retire?
This writer, pondering her own fate, asked the board member what she should plan to do when she reaches into her 90s. Reflecting the frustrations of those who have been dealing with these issues for many years without seeing any public policies put in place that would offer solutions, the board member tartly—and somewhat ambiguously—replied, “By then, there’ll be a pill for that.”
By Diane Joy Schmidt
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.–As we drive past by the David Specter Shalom House without giving it much thought, people in Albuquerque’s Jewish community might be feeling reassured as they or their parents age, that if they need it there will be some sort of low-cost residential independent housing for them.
They may, in fact, be surprised to find such housing is very scarce here.
Although rumors circulating last fall that Shalom House was about to close turned out to be false, most older adults will find very little low-rent housing for seniors 62 and older living in Albuquerque.
That’s a concern not only for local seniors, but for the many baby boomers who moved here from large cities with expectations about aging in a slower, kinder environment.
However, good, well-maintained, subsidized independent-living housing is rare. Shalom House has an average three-year waiting period for available units with 15 currently on the list hoping to move in. The building is one of only 42 federally subsidized senior apartment developments in New Mexico. And commercial retirement complexes are priced out of reach for many.
National Senior-Housing Shortage
It’s not just a problem here, but is growing nationally. A 2014 study [http://bit.ly/1q7rYIk] by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation concluded that even with the rapid growth of the 50-plus population in the United States, “Housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply.”
This is partly because in 2012 Congress voted to discontinue funds [http://bit.ly/10rJwWi] for new senior housing programs that finance the building of and rental assistance for subsidized housing. These tax incentives to private affordable housing developers were done under Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for senior housing.
Although the government is continuing limited funds for existing rental subsidies as well as building repairs, when these Sec. 202 contracts come up for renewal around the country, developers are increasingly declining to renew them in order to convert the buildings for market-rate rentals or condo sales. Seniors in many cities are being been evicted if they can’t pay the escalated costs.
In Detroit, for example, more than 100 long-time senior residents were forced to move out [http://tinyurl.com/psmx3a6] suddenly last year when their building was sold in downtown Detroit. Because the area is experiencing a revitalization causing market rates to climb, the owner of the HUD senior building chose to sell to developers.
Elders who had lived there for decades received 120-day notices to move. Although they have federal rental vouchers, many could not find units they could afford in the area within the subsidy amounts.
In the study, “Senior Housing at a Crossroads,” Wayne State University researcher Tam E. Perry noted that nationally as few as one-percent of nonprofit Sec. 202 property owners have opted out when their HUD contracts have come up for renewal.
But the report states that the Detroit building conversion shows, “It is not assured that these projects will continue to serve low income seniors after they are eligible to opt out of the program.”
Rumors Put to Rest
Albuquerque’s Shalom House sits just to the south of the Jewish Community Center on Wyoming Blvd. Rumors circulated last fall–increasing community members’ concern — that Shalom House was going to close some time in 2016.
Putting those rumors to rest, Judy Weinreb, board president of the nonprofit Jewish Community Housing Corporation (JCHC) that runs Shalom House, said in a telephone interview, “Shalom House has just renewed certifications for the next 10 years.”
The development has 47 total units, with a maximum occupancy of 70 people [http://affordablehousingonline.com/housing-search/New-Mexico/Albuquerque/David-Specter-Shalom-House-Apartments/27103/].
Because the development was ultimately built with federal funds under the Section 202 program and with Title IX’s Civil Rights requirements, it could not give any preference to Jewish residents.
Jennie Negin, 76, a JCHC board member and a former president of Jewish Family Services, fondly recalled that her mother was the very first resident of Shalom House, saying, “She loved it.”
However, over time the number of Jewish residents dwindled. Today, not more than 4 or 5 of the residents are Jewish, less than 10%.
Weinreb and Negin both stressed, though, that Shalom House has its roots in the traditional Jewish mission of tikkun olam, which means “repair of the world”– whether it serves Jewish people or others.
Section 202 Housing
HUD’s Sec. 202 program includes tax credits for affordable-housing developers, plus special rental assistance for those who qualify to move in. At least one resident of a unit must be 62 or older and each household can have no more than 50 percent of the area’s median income. That program subsidy allows the renter to pay no more than 30 percent of his or her income for rent while the government pays the difference–up to a point.
Federal inspections rated Shalom House very well at 93.85 in 2008, above the national average score of 81.08 and the area’s average of 82.28. Shalom House does not provide assisted living services.
By 2025, the JCHC will pay off the Shalom House mortgage. Weinreb and Negin both stressed that the board intends to keep the facility as subsidized housing long into the future. There is clearly no plan to convert the property to market–rate housing, nor is it likely feasible to do so.
Weinreb also addressed the issue of who owns Shalom House. Members of the Jewish community have long assumed the land and building are owned or controlled by the Jewish Federation and or the Jewish Community Center.
Weinreb said, “We’re a separate 501c3. To obtain the financing, the nonprofit has to own the building and own the land; it wouldn’t happen any other way.”
She emphasized that JCHC owns the building and property and that neither the Federation nor the JCC have any say in what happens to it, although the organizations have a cordial relationship. She said she recently had a long meeting with new Federation Director Zach Benjamin and gave him a tour of the facility.
Furthermore, Weinreb noted JCHC’s long-term commitment and said the group renewed its most recent federal paperwork for the maximum 10 years allowed, not the shorter five-year option.
History of Shalom House, and where are those papers?
There’s disagreement about who actually owns the property that needs to be resolved before the future of Shalom House is clear. Could the Federation borrow against the property to build the Jewish Home? If the JCHC, the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, ‘owns’ it, once the mortgage is paid off, where does that excess income flow to? And if they were to convert, and sell it, where does that money go? And what is the value of that land today?
Harold Albert, who was president of the development corporation that built Shalom House and signed the incorporation papers, explained its history and also addressed the issue of ownership.
Albert, who lives much of the time in Florida, happened to be town in early January when reached by phone. He said, “In the 1950’s David Specter had a mother who needed a Jewish Home for the Aged and there was nothing in New Mexico, so he turned to Arizona [for a residence for his mother].”
Specter made a large parcel of land available here in Albuquerque. “Then 10 men got together to put a down payment on this piece of land, which at the time was in the middle of nowhere. The land was to be used for a Jewish Home for the Aged. The project languished for a number of years. Since the land was just languishing in that corporation, we decided to transfer that land to the Federation.
“Then in the ’70s, we decided we wanted to fulfill the original intent of the purchasers of the land, and decided on a housing project for senior citizens. We felt an obligation to fulfill that intention to build a Jewish Home for the Aged.
So we heard at that time federal funds were available, Section 202 housing financing. As the president of the development corporation – I had incorporated it – all the land is owned by the Jewish Federation, the part of the land where the Shalom House is, we had to deed that land to the Shalom House corporation.”
When presented with Weinreb’s fait accompli, her statement that the JCHC owns Shalom House and the land under it, Albert mused as to whether the land was deeded or leased to that entity, and he took the opportunity to search for the records at the Jewish Community Center.
Afterwards, he said, “I went through the storage units and (JCC President) Dave Simon was kind enough to open them. I went through four big storage lockers. There were boxes and boxes. We couldn’t find any of those records.”
He is now taking steps to track down the original papers he signed, and we’ll be reporting more as the answers emerge. The answers may still not be so cut and dried.
Albert had earlier explained, “There were a lot of HUD regulations at that time that permitted us to do things with our project that no other project in the country could. The intent was that it would be a home for the Jewish residents.” And, with the Jewish Community Center building, he said the Federation leased them the land for 50 years.
He concluded, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no question of Shalom House closing,” he said, but “with so few Jewish families there,” there remains the question of further planning for the Jewish community.
Anxiety about the future of Shalom House might have been fueled by the sudden closure two years ago of Jewish Family Services.
Sec. 202 properties are required to connect residents with outside services, such as health care, transportation, education and social activities. Although Shalom House does not provide assisted living services, the facility does have a service coordinator.
For many years JFS provided its service coordinator for Shalom House residents. But the service agency had a financial crisis when key federal grants ended, which some say had also overextended their mission beyond the Jewish community, and was forced to shut their doors overnight.
Weinreb stated that Jewish Family Service’s involvement was always separate from Shalom House. When the agency closed down, she said, HUD itself was able to fund a service coordinator at the residence.
In the wake of the JFS closing, the Jewish Care Program was created and is staffed in half-time positions by social workers, Director Erin Tarica and Hannah Arlette, who oversees the needs of the Holocaust survivors here.
As Paula Amar Schwartz, a former JFS board president who was involved in the establishment of the new program pointed out, the Jewish Care Program still needs to be expanded to really meet the needs of the Jewish community here.
Jewish Community’s Future Needs
In a separate conversation, a JCHC board member conversely doesn’t see that Jewish Albuquerque has a long-term problem, and said most Jewish retirees here have had professional careers and are well off.
“What are the real needs of the Jewish community?” she replied in response to that question, “[It’s] the ability to get to synagogue, to get to services on Saturday morning. It’s transportation. The city has some transportation you can call in, for doctor’s appointments [. . .] I don’t feel there is a need for a Jewish Home for the Aged, that there is enough assisted housing in Albuquerque.”
But limited long-term care options for the rapidly aging U.S. population—with the vulnerable 85-plus population being the fastest growing age demographic—is raising concern nationally.
Others believe the lack of affordable options leaves a vacuum for many members of the Jewish community in Albuquerque.
Certain Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews have been shown to be especially long-lived. (Several family members of this writer, for instance, have lived beyond 100.) While research has long shown that in the general population about half of those living past age 85 develop some form of dementia, along with numerous chronic diseases, the Einstein Aging Study has shown that the longevity gene carried by Ashkenazi descendants carries with it additional protection from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a study they published in 1996 also showed a causal relationship with preservation of cognitive function, especially with good cholesterol (with high HDL, the ‘good’ one) and avoidance of metabolic syndrome.
However, conditions such as strokes, combined with falls, may debilitate seniors long before they reach 100–and long after the money runs out.
Private alternatives in Albuquerque can be very expensive. For example, La Vida Llena, a deluxe senior community offering four residential tiers from independent through assisted living to nursing care, requires a large initial down payment that guarantees permanent residence, plus a substantial monthly fee.
That’s well beyond the reach of those who might be living on fixed incomes, such as the many artists and writers who were drawn to New Mexico and whose careers provided few pensions or opportunities to save for retirement.
This writer, pondering her own fate, asked the JCHC board member what she should plan to do when she reaches into her 90s. Perhaps reflecting the frustrations of those who have been dealing with these issues for many years without seeing any public policies put in place that would offer solutions, the board member tartly—and somewhat ambiguously—replied, “By then, there’ll be a pill for that.”
This article was written with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation. In a series of upcoming profiles, long-time Jewish New Mexicans will talk about the spiritual benefits and practical challenges of aging here. Read and comment here. In February, view at the newly redesigned www.NMJewisheLink.com