Columbia Gardens at Rainier Court is a new community in Rainier Valley.
The Senior Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) is more than just about being a roof over the head, according to Executive Director Jay Woolford. As the sixth largest nonprofit provider of affordable senior housing in the United States, SHAG serves a large, underserved population of seniors and is pioneering efforts to create a model of community-based partnerships that allow their residents to age in place at home.
Visually, SHAG communities challenge the stereotype of what most people think of when it comes to affordable senior housing. Their communities resemble those of market-rate communities, offering amenities such as fitness rooms, community gardens and electric car powering stations. As with market-rate communities, SHAG communities are located in urban and town centers, with shopping, restaurants and health care resources accessible within walking distance or a short bus ride.
The diversity of the over 5,000 residents who call a SHAG apartment home might also challenge misconceptions. Though communities are open to seniors 62 and older, most residents are in their 70s, with some being over 100! Like most retirement communities, single women make up a substantial portion of their residents, and seniors who are 55 and disabled comprise 15 percent of the resident population. More than half of SHAG residents have lived at a community for more than five years.
What makes SHAG communities unique is that they are built using a combination of private and public funding sources. While this helps reduce financing and development costs, it also means communities must be self-sustaining and operate primarily on collected rent. As a result, SHAG must plan strategically, balancing the need to build more affordable housing to meet demand while not exceeding their budget.
Since its first community opening in 1989, SHAG has grown to include 28 retirement communities and counting, spanning from Bellingham to Olympia. Woolford says it is not unusual for seniors to ask when a new SHAG community will open in their area. Tukwila is the next location for a SHAG community, with Tukwila Village opening in fall 2014. More communities are planned for Lynnwood, University Place, Bothell, Federal Way and Mountlake Terrace
With many senior living providers focused on building high-end retirement communities, this leaves a large segment of the population unserved. Furthermore, even those who had the luxury to prepare for retirement, one big event, such as a medical emergency, can result in near poverty. This need for affordable housing and services is the hole we are trying to fill, Woolford says.
Many people who could benefit from SHAG housing do not apply because of the belief that they will not qualify: people either think their income is too high or too low to qualify. This is one of the misconceptions that everyone—including legislators— have and they also do not recognize the increasing need for affordable senior housing, and SHAG works to change these perceptions, explains Rebecca Winn, SHAG’s communications coordinator. The reality is that many seniors do meet the requirements; for example, the income limit for a one person household for a SHAG community in King County is $37, 080.
Life at a SHAG community is resident driven. With residents determining the activities being offered, this makes each community unique, Woolford explains. Activities can vary from community to community. For example, the New Haven community in north Seattle offers a movie night and line dancing, Titus Court in Kent has cards and games, and Courtland Place in south Seattle offers women’s arts and culture workshops. A recent initiative at Courtland Place is developing intergenerational programs with local school groups, connecting SHAG residents to the larger community where they live, or as Woolford describes it, “find[ing] ways to break down that barrier in a good way.”
For the past five years, SHAG’s Courtland Place at Rainier Court has participated in the Rainier Valley community festival. They recently received a grant from the city of Seattle through its SouthEast Effective Development (SEED) program to sponsor a musical/art program that allows residents to share their talents with school children. Woolford sees SHAG communities playing a vital role in creating vibrant neighborhoods, with everyone, including their residents, engaged in the pursuit of this goal.
The first-annual Spokes for Folks bike ride fundraiser for the SHAG Community Life Foundation
In 2012 SHAG formed the Community Life Foundation whose mission is to “connect seniors living in affordable housing to resources that support their independence.” Through the 2013 Spokes for Folks fundraiser—their first major fundraiser which Woolford described as having a real great energy and bringing the community together—the Community Life Foundation funded a pilot program that combined a health and wellness program with resident services coordination at The Terrace in downtown Seattle.
By partnering with existing community resources to seamlessly connect seniors with services, Woolford and his staff are working to deliver a continuum of care to their residents. This is the least expensive way to serve people,” Woolford explains, and Winn adds that SHAG wants to be on the “forefront of finding solutions for this pocket of [seniors] who are aging.” Some of the challenges faced by the foundation include obtaining funding for services, identifying providers for both health care and housekeeping, and getting residents recognize when they need assistance. Winn states that many middle class residents perceive services such as housekeeping assistance as a luxury, and not something they would consider spending money on.
Through this new pilot program, resident services coordinators are the eyes and ears at the community level. They can help identify residents whose behavior may put them at risk for eviction, whether due to mental health issues or an inability to maintain safe and sanitary living conditions resulting from failing health. Woolford describes the program as absolutely essential, but faces challenges such as maintaining adequate funding and scalability to other communities. Expanding outreach to their veteran residents is also a priority, and Woolford sees a need for SHAG to be more proactive in providing support and connecting them to resources to which they are entitled.
SHAG also offers an internship that allows college students to shadow resident services coordinators and assist with the community engagement program. Not only does this program promote the benefits of working with seniors, which is a growing need, but the residents enjoy seeing new faces. We have received lots of positive feedback about the program, Winn says.
While SHAG is pioneering these new initiatives, they aren’t losing sight of their core mission of providing affordable senior housing. In their most recent annual survey, nearly 100 percent of their 5,000 residents reported that they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the physical upkeep, the management of their community, and their quality of life. With the persistent demand for more SHAG communities throughout western Washington, Woolford pledges that “we will continue to develop with partners to find ways to operate affordable housing.”
To learn more about SHAG housing, visit http://www.housing4seniors.com.
Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance writer who covers senior living, sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.