Converting unused buildings into housing for the elderly

Across the United States - from Sioux Falls, S.D. to Central Falls, R.I. and from Richmond, Va., to Los Angeles - elderly Americans are living in apartments that were built as something else - as schools or factories or office buildings. It's part of an innovative trend that is providing much-needed housing for older Americans: Take a building that's no longer needed, adapt it to meet the requirements of older tenants, and turn it into apartments. This trend promises to be part of the solution to what demographers project will be an immense need in the coming three decades: finding appropriate housing for older Americans.

Yet housing experts warn that adaptive reuse of existing buildings, as helpful as it is, can provide only a fraction of the living units for the elderly that will be needed. For instance, in 30 years, demographers say, there will be three times as many Americans over 85 as today.

Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, says the nation is ``rapidly approaching an impending crisis'' in housing for the elderly.

Further, during the Reagan administration, funds to provide new, rehabilitated, or subsidized housing have been substantially trimmed, housing experts note. They add that such cuts imperil society's ability to provide the housing that the elderly and low-income Americans will need in the near future.

In any case, experts say that one part of the answer, especially for the elderly, lies in doing what US communities, with federal aid, have been doing over the past decade: using the buildings they have to provide the housing they need. A survey in a new report by the US Conference of Mayors finds that American cities have completed, or have in process, some 370 such conversion projects. These include:

In Sioux Falls, a former grocery-distribution warehouse built just before the turn of the century has been converted into 23 one-bedroom apartments of elderly housing.

In Central Falls, the Valley Falls Mill, built in 1840, has been rehabilitated to provide 133 federally subsidized apartments for the elderly.

In Richmond, the former Randolph School now provides housing for the elderly; some internal walls were moved so that three apartments now stand where every two classrooms formerly did.

In Los Angeles, an office building was converted in 1983 into 299 subsidized apartments for the elderly.

Such rehabilitation is attractive ``because it satisfies so many agendas'' simultaneously, says Larry A. McNickle, who directed the reuse study for the US Conference of Mayors. It can provide housing, save historically significant buildings, transform shabby structures, retain yesteryear's architecture, and often enable the elderly to remain in an area familiar to them.

In narrow terms, reusing existing buildings is sometimes less expensive than building a new facility for elderly housing from the ground up, and sometimes costs more. But ``you may be getting more bang for your buck in terms of other agendas,'' Mr. McNickle notes. Besides, he says, if the building formerly was a school or church, it was not required to pay real estate taxes; when it's used for housing, ``you're putting that property on the tax rolls.''

About a quarter of the buildings rehabilitated thus far for elderly housing used to be hotels; another quarter were schools. Medical facilities were the third most frequently converted type of structure. Massachusetts, he says, is the leader in this type of building conversion.

Today more than 1.6 million American households headed by elderly people are aided by rental subsidies from the federal government; some 42 percent of the Americans to whom Uncle Sam provides rent subsidies, including in some of these programs, are elderly. Yet in some areas of the US, according to the House Select Committee on Aging, for every needy elderly person receiving assistance, another eight or nine are on waiting lists.

Critics of Reagan housing policies note that since 1980 there has been what the House committee calls ``a dramatic shift'' in the purposes for which the government provides housing funds. In fiscal year 1980, the committee notes, four-fifths of federal housing money went either to build new structures or to do rehabilitation on existing buildings - this last being the category into which would fit most of the conversion of existing structures into housing for the elderly. The remaining one-fifth of the money went to subsidize existing housing.

But by fiscal year 1985, only one-third of federal housing funds were being spent for new construction or substantial rehabilitation; two-thirds were for subsidies for existing housing, such as rent vouchers, which some of the poor can use as part payment for housing that they find on their own.

Given this decrease in rehabilitation funds, it is not known whether communities will be able to keep up the pace of recent years in the revamping of older structures to provide new housing for some of America's elderly.

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