Future unclear for Littleton seniors' home

City to stop filling vacancies at Geneva Village; aging facility needs work, officials say

Posted 10/28/19

Donna Ehlers says Geneva Village saved her life. “I was living in a mobile home park, and the lot fees just kept going up and up,” said Ehlers, 82, who deals with heart problems, macular …

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Future unclear for Littleton seniors' home

City to stop filling vacancies at Geneva Village; aging facility needs work, officials say

Posted

Donna Ehlers says Geneva Village saved her life.

“I was living in a mobile home park, and the lot fees just kept going up and up,” said Ehlers, 82, who deals with heart problems, macular degeneration and emphysema.

She landed a two-bedroom apartment at the 29-unit complex beside Littleton's city hall in May 2018, after spending six years on a waiting list through South Metro Housing Options, or SMHO, Littleton's public housing authority. She pays $450 a month for the unit.

“I didn't know what I was going to do before I got this place,” said Ehlers, who has lived alone since her husband died in 1989. “I didn't know where I was going to live or what would happen to me.”

Ehlers and her neighbors got a shock on Oct. 15, when they found notices taped to their doors that the City of Littleton, which owns the complex, would no longer be filling vacancies “until further notice … pending further decisions.”

“When and if units are rented again in the future it will be after all necessary remediation and renovation has been completed,” said the notice. “In the interim, active discussions about the facility's future are taking place.”

Ehlers and her neighbors were left scratching their heads.

“We just have no idea what's next,” Ehlers said.

'There's no big picture'

Turns out they're not alone — city officials aren't sure what's next for the facility either.

“First, I want to say there are no plans to close the facility or kick anyone out,” said City Manager Mark Relph. “That said, I don't know what we're doing at an operational or policy level. There's no big picture here.”

The city was left holding the bag in October after SMHO, which had managed the property for decades, pulled out of the arrangement.

In a letter delivered to city council in March, SMHO announced their intent to withdraw, calling the arrangement “untenable.”

“For many years we have expressed our severe misgivings about the nature of our Geneva Village involvement,” the letter reads in part.

For one thing, SMHO said, the complex's qualification process does not require applicants to meet low-income criteria — residents must only be over 55 and pass a background check, which SMHO director Corey Reitz said is at odds with the housing authority's charge to provide low-income housing.

Second, SMHO said, rents at the facility, ranging from $300 a month for a studio to $450 a month for a two-bedroom, were so low that the agency couldn't guarantee it could afford to comply with their legal mandate to provide “safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations.”

Efforts to raise rents at the complex stalled out in city council twice in recent years, in the face of opposition from residents and advocates, according to previous articles in the Littleton Independent.

Meanwhile, the facility is showing its age, Relph said.

The facility was built in 1964, according to city records, and was designed by noted architect Eugene Sternberg, who also designed Bemis Library, Heritage High School and Arapahoe Community College's main campus.

The city bought the facility in 1975, and built its new city hall on the eastern end of the grounds that once belonged to a convalescent home for hospitality workers. The city entered into an arrangement with SMHO, then called the Littleton Housing Authority, to manage the apartments.

Relph said the original terms of the agreement between the city and SMHO are currently unknown, because nobody can seem to find the documents.

'What else is wrong?'

Concerns about the facility's condition grew after a gas line leak a few years ago revealed more problems.

“It turned out we had Swiss cheese for a gas line,” Relph said. “It got our attention. What else is wrong here?”

An inspection completed earlier this year found the facility toeing the line between a “fair” and “poor” rating, said Public Works Director Keith Reester, and showed the facility needs a lot of work: upgrades to electrical systems and plumbing, improved access for people with disabilities, and asbestos abatement.

“This starts adding up really fast,” Reester said. “The city never set aside money for these capital needs, and the current rents won't cover it.”

In the meantime, the city has contracted with Denver Real Estate Moguls to collect rents and address minor issues at the property.

There is currently one vacant unit at the facility, Reester said.

The facility is one of more than 30 city-owned properties in need of expensive upgrades, according to a city report. Littleton's capital projects fund, the portion of the budget that pays for infrastructure, is severely short on cash, Relph said in September, calling it a "critical problem."

Reester said Public Works is prepared to fix up the facility, so long as the city can come up with money to pay for it.

'It's a hot potato'

Mayor Debbie Brinkman, who will leave office in November, said that may not be the best course of action.

“City council has no business being a landlord to citizens,” Brinkman said. “There's something inherently wrong with that. Nobody's wanted to make the hard decisions here because it's a hot potato.”

Brinkman said she believes selling the property should be an option on the table. The property has a 2019 appraised value of nearly $1.6 million, according to county records.

Brinkman said it's vital the city be thoughtful with regards to Geneva Village and its residents.

“We talk about it like it's a facility, but it's not,” Brinkman said. “It's homes. It's people. It's lives.”

Brinkman said she was dismayed to hear about the notices posted to residents' doors in October, saying the approach leads to rumor and fearmongering. She took issue with the notices saying the hiatus was the result of policy direction from city council. She said council gave no such direction.

Relph said while he made the call to suspend filling vacancies, he was unaware of the notices. Reester, the public works director, said he signed off on the letters and stood by the wording and decision to post them to residents' doors.

Relph said the city still must complete an analysis of how much Geneva Village costs the city versus how much it brings in, but he knows the status quo won't fly much longer.

“What we're doing is irresponsible,” Relph said. “We're subsidizing affordable housing at a rate I cannot justify.”

Relph said he is eager to explore the city's role in facilitating affordable housing, but a policy decision from council will take time to achieve. It will likely come up as the new council takes up a forthcoming code and zoning revision, he said.

Brinkman said she hopes the next city council, which will be seated in November, works quickly on a plan to address the facility.

“We can't be winging it every year,” Brinkman said. “The challenge is that we're dealing with some of our most vulnerable citizens — older and low-income. We'll never kick old people out on the street. That's not how we behave in Littleton.”

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