Porter Hills Adds Affordable Senior Housing

November 4, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Prescription medicines suddenly look much more affordable when a low-income retiree moves into a $50-a-month apartment.

A new senior housing community in Caledonia, with help from the federal government, will allow residents to spend less of their money on rent so they don’t choose to skimp on food, medicine and heating bills.

Station Creek is the newest addition to the collection of facilities operated by Porter Hills Retirement Communities & Services, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that offers affordable senior housing, skilled nursing and assisted living facilities as well as home health and other senior wellness programs. Construction of the 49-unit senior apartment complex was completed earlier this fall though a grant of roughly $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is the sixth such facility for Porter Hills, with comparable communities in Belmont, Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Sparta and Walker.

“Our goal is to make it the best possible living arrangements for seniors, period. They just happen to be low-income,” said Porter Hills President David B. Douma.

To qualify, individual applicants must have an annual income below $21,700. The limit for couples is $24,800. For applicants who meet those standards, rent is determined with a formula that considers income, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and utility costs.

“So literally every person could be paying a different monthly amount to reside here,” said Ingrid Weaver, Porter Hills’ vice president of operations. “Some folks pay $50 a month, some less than that. And we have people that are paying $400 a month, depending on their own individual circumstance. … Residents will not pay — ever — more than 30 percent of their income.”

Of course Station Creek and Porter Hills’ other low-income senior facilities wouldn’t last very long if they only took in $50 per unit. That’s where HUD helps out. The agency reimburses Porter Hills the difference between what a resident pays and what is determined as the appropriate rent. Weaver said that amount is not quite as much as they would prefer. Porter Hills determined that the rent needed to be at least $375 per month for each unit to successfully cover expenses.

“And we run a very, very tight ship. We control our expenses very well,” said Weaver. “The rent that we were given — and it’s really based on a formula that the federal government has — was $319. So we have one-bedroom apartments and the rent that we’re getting, maximum, is $319.”

In cases where rent paid (based on 30 percent of the resident’s income) exceeds $319, the surplus is subtracted from the total reimbursement HUD gives to Porter Hills. That keeps Station Creek’s monthly income even at $15,631 — or $319 per unit.

All of Station Creek’s 49 units are identical: one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. They are just over 500 square feet in size. As a housing community, Station Creek doesn’t offer dining or health-related services. However, Douma said, because of Porter Hills’ expertise in those fields and partnerships with other agencies, residents are kept abreast of the services that are available to them.

Weaver said that she will soon hire a services coordinator, a concierge of sorts who can help residents with medical services, transportation and other issues. Porter Hills’ other affordable senior communities already have services coordinators in place. Weaver says they are “very savvy in what’s out there for people who have limited dollars to spend on those type of services.”

Transportation is among the biggest challenges for Porter Hills residents. Only 50 percent of the seniors in the affordable housing have cars. Weaver said that providing a company-owned bus or van is simply cost-prohibitive, so she relies on partnerships with agencies such as The Rapid, Kent County’s public transportation system.

Transportation is more difficult for Station Creek, as The Rapid’s Go!Bus does not serve Caledonia. Being able to provide transportation to all Porter Hills’ communities “would be a dream” for Weaver.

But even without great transportation, there is no shortage of seniors vying for a spot in Porter Hills’ communities. After just a month, 18 of Station Creek’s 49 units are rented. All of the other affordable senior communities have waiting lists. There is also a long list of individuals who have applied for the affordable communities but whose income exceeds the limits determined by HUD. That’s where Douma sees an opportunity.

“There’s also a need for market-rate housing for seniors in Caledonia. And we’re looking at that as well,” he said. “So this is kind of our footprint in Caledonia, so they begin to understand who we are.”

Douma said that Porter Hills has exercised a purchase option on a parcel of property immediately to the south of Station Creek, within the same planned unit development. The organization is planning a market-rate senior community as well as a unique skilled nursing facility that would be the first of its kind in West Michigan. These projects are still in the planning stages, but Douma sees them coming to fruition in coming years.

In the meantime, he and Weaver expect that Station Creek will fill up by the end of the year. Even if the holidays and cold weather decrease some seniors’ willingness to move right away, Weaver still expects a waiting list by spring.    

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