A Housing Outpost in Elkins Park

When Shirley Cohen, 91, became the first tenant to move into the Samuel A. Green House in Elkins Park back in October, the $20 million property built to house low-income seniors was something of a construction zone.

The first week or so was a bit unpleasant, she said; there was nobody to talk to and workers were still putting finishing touches on the building. But now that the work has long since been completed and the building has been fully occupied since December -- with 90 residents and 100 people already on a waiting list -- the longtime Northeast Philadelphia resident said she's thrilled with her new home.

Cohen, a widow with two daughters, spoke enthusiastically about many of the building's features, from the wide hallways to the kitchen cabinets in the 650-square-foot, one-bedroom units. Although she didn't know anyone beforehand, she's become part of a group of women -- women outnumber men in the residence -- who meet afternoons by the fireplace in the community room. The ladies also gather in the evenings for movies and mah-jongg.

"It's very nice here. I didn't know that I would be this comfortable," said Cohen, whose sentiments were echoed by several other women interviewed, ranging in age from mid-60s to the mid-90s.

The opening of the Elkins Park independent-living facility -- funded in part from the federal stimulus package -- comes as the need for low-cost, senior housing in the Jewish community contiues to outstrip supply. The demand is expected to increase as baby boomers continue to reach retirement age.

But some wondered whether it made sense to build senior housing at a time when the Old York Road community is making a concerted effort to attract younger Jewish families to the region. And, for the better part of a year, some nearby residents complained that the construction on the property was disruptive and their yards and cars were being coated with layers of dust and mud.

The Green House is part of Federation Housing, which operates nine other properties, home to about 1,500 residents, all located within Philadelphia's city limits. All of the properties, which are independent living rather than assisted-living facilities, have waiting lists.

Federation Housing, an independent non-profit organization, was created in 1970 with the help of a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The Jewish Federation currently heavily subsidizes the meal programs in some of the Federation Housing facilities, according to Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility.

The 85-unit Green House represents the agency's first foray into Montgomery County, the result of a 2005 decision to focus on the suburbs. It has opened in an area with a dense concentration of synagogues and Jewish institutions that has long been considered an upper-middle-class enclave.

Federation Housing officials stressed that the overbooked facility is meant to serve seniors from beyond the immediate neighborhood. But according to Eric Naftulin, executive director and CEO of Federation Housing, an informal analysis showed that a sizable percentage of residents have at least some connection to the Elkins Park area, even if they haven't lived there recently.

Cohen, for example, had lived in the area 25 years ago, before moving to Florida and, most recently, to the Northeast. At least seven other occupants were longtime Philadelphia residents living in Florida who decided to return to the area. Naftulin said the economy has forced many seniors to seek less-expensive housing.

Ernest Kahn, a sociologist and consultant for the Jewish Federation, said it was no surprise that the new unit filled up so quickly. The low rent and quality-of-life programming "are going to be needed by more people than we can serve."

Gralnick said the Jewish Federation is constantly getting calls from seniors inquiring about affordable housing.

"This will make a difference" for the dozens living there, "but there is lots more work to be done," he said. "Building new housing is very challenging and Federation Housing is doing it well."

The Green House features an arts-and-crafts room, community room, library room, free transportation and in-house programs run by a rabbi. It also has some "green" features such as solar panels. There's no exercise room but there are plans to start a fitness program.

There is currently no communal dining option right now, though the agency is hoping to raise funds to serve lunch at a reduced cost.

The units are open to any senior regardless of ethnic or religious background who meets the income requirements. An individual can earn up to 60 percent of the median income for Montgomery County. Jews constitute the majority of the residents, said Naftulin.

In the new unit, residents pay well below market value in rent, ranging from $150 to $700 a month, depending on income level, according to Naftulin.

In 2006, Federation Housing purchased the 5.2-acre site of the former Wadsworth Academy on Ashbourne Road for $1.7 million, with the intention of knocking down the existing buildings.

The property had briefly belonged to Kol Ami, but the Reform synagogue ultimately purchased the former suburban home of Rodeph Shalom.

The site was chosen because of its availability as well as the proximity to other Jewish institutions, especially Gratz College, which offers opportunities for adult education, according to Naftulin. There are also plans to coordinate intergenerational programming with students at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School on the Mandell campus.

According to Naftulin, the project took longer than expected due to zoning issues, complaints from neighbors and the difficulty of financing the whole thing in the midst of the recession.

"Most people, when they hear affordable housing, it's 'Oh no, section-eighters moving in my backyard, no thank you,' " he said. "We really educated our closest neighbors. We said, 'Come see our sites. You will see that we are assets to the neighborhood."

Ultimately, Naftulin said Federation Housing agreed to build a three-story building instead of a four-story one and promised to preserve one building on the property with some historic characteristics, the Cook mansion.

The mansion stands vacant directly next to the apartment building; for now converting the structure into more housing is cost prohibitive, said Naftulin.

One local civic leader, who did not want to be identified, said communal opposition stemmed from the fact that Cheltenham Township is sorely in need of for-profit businesses that can contribute to the tax base.

At the same time, community leaders are looking to attract younger families and the addition of a senior housing facility was viewed by some as sending the wrong message. "The controversy was a few years ago. In good Montgomery County fashion, once the green light was given, the locals said, 'You know what, so be it,' " said the local activist.

Naftulin said the local Jewish organizations have all welcomed Federation Housing to the neighborhood, and Adath Jeshurun has a committee to coordinate activities with the senior residents.

"If things go well, we will be somewhat of an anchor to help preserve the Old York Road corridor and the Jewish community," he said. "As everybody knows, it has been kind of dwindling over the years. We think that if we can keep the seniors here, we are doing our part in trying to keep the Jewish community here."

As for funding, the project received $7.5 million generated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the federal stimulus package. It also received a $2.5 million grant from the Montgomery County Affordable Housing Trust Fund and $6 million in low-income-housing tax credit equity.

In addition, the Daniel B. and Florence E. Green Family Foundation, via the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, gave $3 million to the project.

Naftulin said the $3 million went toward upgrading the property and making it look less institutional. The upgrades included custom wall cabinets, carpet tiles, plank flooring, a large-screen television in the media room and a refurbished $1 million stone wall that lines the property.

Cohen, just returning from a hair appointment and grocery shopping, said she's moved many times in her life -- she lived in North Carolina for seven years in the 1940s but told her husband they had to leave because there was no Yiddishkeit -- and this move seems so far like a good one.

"When I signed up four years ago when an ad appeared in the Exponent, I was young. I thought myself young. And I said, 'Well, let me have my name on it,' " she said, referring to the list of people interested in moving in.

"I figured, let me sign up and be prepared," said Cohen, who still drives and takes part in activities at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and the Klein JCC. "It worked out wonderful. I'm really very content here."

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