New Heritage House Apartments, Denver

A Model for Independent Living


“From the very beginning, when its fortunes depended almost exclusively on gold, silver, oil, and real estate, Denver has been… riding a Wild West economic roller coaster… Good times and bad, they always seem to hit harder in Denver. Throughout the 1970s, no American city boomed more than this one, as high-rolling oilmen, land speculators, and savings and loans bet it all….Then, poof! Recession struck in the early 1980s,” New York Times reporter Drummand Ayres Jr. wrote of Denver. The changing fortunes described by Ayres were bad for the city’s whole economy, but a disaster for the poor.

Denver is now enjoying a major economic comeback, after a decade of stalled growth. Ayres reported that once more the engine driving the comeback is a building boom, “a good part of it paid for, Great Depression–style, with public works money.” This revitalization is seen in the conversion of decrepit office and warehouse space into luxury lofts, artist studios, galleries, and a profusion of new restaurants, clubs, and microbreweries. In addition, “the rejuvenated downtown now boasts a new baseball stadium, library, rail system, and a soon-to-be-completed amusement park,” noted Ayres.

Denver’s revitalized economy has attracted a new migration of residents – by some estimates 2,000 weekly – pushing the area’s population above two million. The citywide residential vacancy rate, as high as 13 percent a few years ago, has come down to between 4 and 5 percent, while rents have recently increased an average of 12 percent per year.

One sign of new unmet housing needs in Denver has been homelessness rising at the same rate as rental prices. Colorado has had no sustainable affordable housing production program since the federal housing cutbacks of the early 1980s. Yet while the S&L crisis of the late 1980s hit hard in Denver, the “silver lining” for housing advocates was the large number of foreclosed HUD and RTC properties that became available as affordable housing. Federal, state, and local agencies responded to the availability of property by forming a partnership with nonprofit organizations to acquire RTC multifamily developments in bulk, creating 416 affordable housing units in three municipalities. (Chambliss 1991)

The Colorado Bulk Purchase

For its Affordable Housing Disposition Program, begun in 1990, RTC’s regional office in Denver hired Elaine Covert and Mary Clark, both longtime affordable housing advocates. But the job was uncharted territory for the RTC, which provided no clear rules and set inherently conflicting goals: to maximize returns on RTC assets, while, as directed by Congress, maximizing availability of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. The RTC also sought to avoid an adverse impact on the local real estate market. Yet such conflicts were easily resolved in RTC’s Denver office. As Covert reports, the Denver office “has always been clear that our mission was to preserve affordable housing. At first it seemed like a problem not to have firm rules, then we began to see it as an opportunity.”

When the RTC published its first list of properties available for disposition under the Affordable Housing Program (AHP) in September 1990, Covert and Clark had already been involved in a forum known as Fifty for Housing, a monthly meeting of affordable housing advocates, builders, service providers, public officials, and consultants. In their new roles with the RTC, Covert and Clark met with the group to explain the requirements and expectations for the 790 units in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Grand Junction.

Participants included representatives of local government; the Colorado Housing and Finance Agency (CHFA); and the state Coordinating Council on Housing and the Homeless, a task force appointed by Governor Roy Romer. A representative of the task force asked whether the RTC would help market Colorado’s foreclosed S&L multifamily properties as affordable housing. The state wanted to acquire as much RTC stock as possible, but RTC regulations only offered a narrow opportunity for public agencies and nonprofits to purchase units for affordable housing. The task force felt that a public agency or nonprofit group would be more likely than a for-profit owner to try to preserve the affordability of the housing while maintaining the units in decent condition.

Covert and Clark agreed that the state was capable of such an undertaking. CHFA had experience with multifamily housing and property disposition from its Rental Acquisition Program, which targeted distressed projects emerging from Colorado’s depressed economy. Many CHFA staff were well prepared for the tasks involved in a bulk purchase, such as identifying distressed properties, negotiating for purchase, renovating the properties, and making them available to nonprofits committed to keeping them affordable. (Chambliss 1991) And CHFA had financial resources from its Housing Development and Revolving Loan Funds. CHFA also had authority to sell 501(c)(3) bonds for nonprofit groups and provide credit guarantees for a limited number of nonprofit rental projects.

After the meeting, a task force of Fifty for Housing began working with Clark and Covert to acquire as many RTC units in Colorado as possible. They set out to reduce the purchase price of units, thus reducing the need for ongoing subsidy. The RTC allowed reductions in price, as long as at least 35 percent of the units in each building were deed-restricted to make maximum rent affordable for the economic life of the property (40 to 50 years) to people whose incomes were 65 percent of the area median. The RTC Land Use Restriction further required 15 percent of the reserved units to be affordable to those with incomes less than 80 percent of median. The remaining 20 percent must be affordable to those with incomes less than 50 percent of median.

The RTC did not offer its own financing, and wanted CHFA’s help in financing, identifying potential nonprofit owners and managers, and preventing private buyers from “cherry picking.” The RTC offered to sell 10 properties together, if CHFA would help find funding and act as purchaser. In January 1991, CHFA agreed to RTC’s terms, including accepting some properties in the package that it would not have wanted otherwise.

AHP director Covert said it was important that the sales price include rehab dollars, to address the concern that some buyers or investors would not do the rehab and just continue to “milk the properties.” But to set a sales price, RTC had to obtain appraisals on properties with encumbered leases. This was unfamiliar territory for many local appraisers, since so little low-income housing had been developed in the area in 20 years. Some appraisers were coming up with what RTC’s Clark called “squirrely” numbers. “So we reduced [the appraisal] by 30 percent for [the package]. This was as low as we could go.” Clark explained. Next, Covert and Clark had to convince RTC top management to agree to the price. They succeeded essentially by saying, “This is what we’re going to get for these ten buildings, and some we couldn’t sell otherwise.”

Assembling the properties also involved outreach to nonprofits. Catherine McAuley Housing Foundation (CMHF), technical assistance advisor for RTC’s multifamily housing disposition in Colorado, helped provide interested groups with information on RTC’s program and the purchase process, identify buildings appropriate for groups’ needs, and conduct feasibility studies. As groups indicated interest in specific properties, CHFA staff provided estimates and generally worked to make acquisition of that building viable. Architect Blake Chambliss, who worked with the RTC and CMHF and was among the first affordable housing advocates on CHFA’s board, explained, “Pro forma were developed, purchase prices set, funding sources identified to fill the gap to meet equity requirements, excessive renovations costs, or the costs for the nonprofit sponsor’s program-driven conversions.” CHFA raised money for gap financing for each project. Funders included the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB); Denver’s Rental Rehab program, Skyline trust fund, and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds; and Colorado’s Division of Housing. In some cases, nonprofits applied directly to sources for additional financing.

CHFA also had to define its relationship with nonprofits interested in owning the properties. “CHFA could play one of three or four roles – as owner-rehabber-lender; owner-rehabber; owner-lender, etc,” said CHFA’s Grace Buckley. In general, CHFA did not want to be an interim owner, so the agency tried to negotiate deals with each group. “Essentially, we said ‘you guys decide, based on what you don’t want to do yourself,'” Buckley said. “…In one or two cases, CHFA said it did not want to be the lender. So the agency did call a lot of the shots, but if a group had something else in mind, fine.”

Meanwhile, in August 1990, new RTC rules had begun requiring all multifamily housing to be placed in a clearinghouse, to ensure wide marketing of properties for affordable housing. RTC regulations mandated that a state housing finance agency or other government designee run the clearinghouse. CHFA agreed to serve as Colorado’s clearinghouse. RTC’s AHP staff had already been meeting with CHFA, CMHA, and local nonprofits, but during a 90-day period other potential buyers had the chance to tour the properties and attend buyer awareness seminars. Potential buyers had to submit notification of serious interest and agree to the deed restriction. Then RTC sent out a bid package to all interested parties and allowed them 45 days to prepare a bid.

Bidders had problems, however, acquiring current information such as rent rolls or operating cost data. Some properties had been acquired with no records. One building in the CHFA package had title problems that took more than a year to clear. The property had to stay in the package to keep the total value up. “That is one of the problems of buying property from a public agency,” Clark said. “Many of them have problems, which adds to the complexity of the acquisition process. But on the other hand, the problem properties were an advantage, since the sale would have to go through RTC’s regular bid process – investors would probably be less interested in a package with some ‘dogs.'”

Although CHFA was the only bidder for the package, RTC management still felt the initial bid was too low. So RTC and CHFA returned to the table to negotiate. “We were afraid that if anyone dropped the ball, the whole deal would die, so we kept to the mandated timetable,” said Clark. The deal was closed by late May 1991, five months after CHFA agreed to serve as intermediary. CHFA bought the 10-building package for 70 percent of the appraised value, discounted essentially due to RTC’s land use restriction.

CHFA signed RTC’s Land Use Restriction on behalf of the ultimate nonprofit buyers. The restriction, which determined for each property how many units were to be set aside for low- or very low-income households, applied to any new buyer but disappeared for foreclosed property. RTC designated CHFA to monitor all properties in the bulk purchase to ensure compliance by end-buyers.

One property in the package was renamed New Heritage House Apartments by its buyer, Atlantis Community Inc. With this new name, Atlantis christened more than a typical nonprofit group’s first housing venture. Atlantis, according to a brochure from the organization, sought “to enable low-income, severely disabled people to live independent, self-determined lives in communities of their choice.” More recently, New Heritage has attracted national attention as a model for accessible supported housing. What distinguishes New Heritage from other projects is that its disabled tenants reside in a setting where most tenants are not disabled.

New Heritage is a 1960s or early 1970s era three-story brick building with a simple facade that gives no hint of the special qualities of its interior courtyard (see “Rehab” section below). By the time Atlantis surveyed the property, years of deferred maintenance had taken their toll. The development also had a reputation as a drug haven. Despite this deterioration, Atlantis’s plans for New Heritage initially met with strong local resistance. Neighborhood residents feared that plans for the development would negatively impact the neighborhood. Atlantis representatives met with neighborhood groups and city council members to ease their fears. One staff member recalled, “They were happier to get Atlantis as a buyer because we cleaned up the property.”

Neighborhood Context

Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood, just southeast of the central business district, is home to several foreclosed buildings in the CHFA bulk purchase. Congress Park, like most of Denver’s central neighborhoods, is a Neighborhood Revitalization area, targeted by the city for CDBG funds. Congress Park borders a large park and upscale residential areas, including a historic district of patrician, Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood has a mix of architecturally distinctive, pre-war apartment buildings that fit with its single-family homes. With quiet, tree-lined streets and a stable, mixed-income population, Congress Park is an atypical low-income neighborhood. A few blocks north, and along the main commercial street, there are more run-down buildings and signs of neighborhood decline.

New Heritage, in Congress Park, is one of the best located of the bulk purchase properties, and is ideal for its disabled residents. The area’s wide, flat one-way streets have little traffic, which is good for maneuvering wheelchairs. Across the street from New Heritage is a bus stop – essential for residents with disabilities. Also across from the project is a closed elementary school with a schoolyard that the city still maintains in pleasant condition. The school building itself is being developed into upscale, pre-sold townhomes in the $170,000 to $220,000 price range.

According to John Bailey, a New Heritage resident who grew up nearby and previously worked in real estate, “This is one of the most popular single-family markets in the city. People pay a premium for hardwood floors and stained glass.” A large Victorian home next to New Heritage recently sold for $135,000. In 1990, the median value of Congress Park’s owner-occupied homes was $115,064, nearly 33 percent higher than the $86,800 median value for the city as a whole. Median contract rent for the area, however, was only $286 per month, nearly 25 percent lower than for the city as a whole, at $375.

On New Heritage’s status in the community, Bailey remarked, “Prior to the time when Atlantis took over, this place was one of the objects of [area homeowners’] scorn. This building was the cause of difficulties for many of those homeowners. With Atlantis’ policies, we’re now the heroes, almost.”

Sponsor

A nonprofit founded in 1975, Atlantis serves the severely disabled, many who have multiple disabilities or who were previously institutionalized. Atlantis also organizes around national issues through its advocacy organization, Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT). ADAPT activists initially organized around transit issues, then focused on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and now push for Medicaid-paid, home-based personal assistance.

Atlantis’ literature says the organization has “long struggled against the medical orientations and bureaucratic restrictions attached to funding for home health services.” Atlantis Director Mike Auberger saw an opportunity to stretch these limits when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ) offered funding in 1990 under its “Improving Service Systems for People with Disabilities” program. Project Director Karen Tamley recalled, “The [Request for Proposals] had nothing to do with housing. Mike looked at this and thought ‘What can be done to make property accessible as an ongoing resource?'” Atlantis subsequently received a $500,000 grant “to explore new and creative ways” to provide on-site services to help people with disabilities live independently in integrated settings.

Although the Robert Wood Johnson grant does not cover New Heritage staff salaries, it helps pay for three Atlantis staff positions, which allows Atlantis to use other funds to hire staff for New Heritage. Auberger, who has been with Atlantis for 18 years, works part time, providing overall guidance and supervision on this project. Tamley, who joined Atlantis two years ago, administers the grant. Jim Parker serves as property manager, a new position for him. Atlantis hopes to keep this management team intact when the Robert Wood Johnson grant runs out.

Auberger has worked for accessible housing in Denver for nearly two decades and has mostly found the effort “an uphill battle.” In 1994, nearly 30,000 disabled people needed adapted housing in Denver, while only 500 accessible rental units existed, mostly in segregated settings, according to Tamley. Yet Denver, named the Most Accessible City in the nation by the President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities, has now become a magnet for the physically disabled, partly due to Atlantis’s work.

Atlantis stresses the importance of placing disabled people in no more than 25 percent of its units – thus preventing a “disabled ghetto” from developing. Atlantis plans to apply this principle to other projects in downtown Denver, Colorado Springs, and Durango.

Acquisition

To undertake the Robert Wood Johnson project, Atlantis turned to a more experienced nonprofit developer, Hope Communities Inc., formed by a coalition of churches in 1980. Hope Communities was also interested in buying two RTC-CHFA properties. Hope’s Director, Ray Stranske, suggested Atlantis hire Vikki Gold, Hope’s long time housing consultant who had recently founded The Developer’s Resource (TDR), the only Denver organization that was capable of serving as consultant to nonprofit affordable housing developers. Gold explained, “Atlantis’s role was to handle the soft part of the development process and to learn development and property management by working with us (TDR) during the two-year start-up period. It was a neat partnership. Now Atlantis is disconnecting….”

CMHF and CHFA helped Atlantis find the right building and funding sources for its program. The low acquisition cost of the New Heritage property, along with other subsidies, allowed almost all rents to be kept below market rate and funds to be used for services. As Property Manager Jim Parker explained, “Sometimes it’s harder to get operational funding than to reduce debt service. People will fund bricks and mortar more than programs, especially something new….This [paying for services with building income] is a more entrepreneurial form of subsidy.”

On the same day in May 1991, CHFA closed the bulk purchase and all 10 sales to nonprofit owners. For Atlantis, this further complicated the process. New Heritage’s actual purchase price was $100,000. Rehab cost $375,127 plus $32,511 in soft costs, including the developer’s fee, bringing the total to nearly $15,000 per unit. CHFA provided permanent financing, and capitalized rehab costs into the first mortgage.[10] The Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program, the state Division of Housing, and the City’s rental rehab program and Skyline Trust Fund provided gap financing.

Rehab

As with most of the bulk purchase buildings, New Heritage was occupied when Atlantis acquired it. RTC regulations required that new owners keep existing tenants, regardless of whether or not they met income qualifications. Atlantis gave remaining tenants the option of staying during rehab, but according to resident manager John Bailey, all but 10 moved, and recently only two of the original tenants remained.

As part of the package, CHFA imposed high standards for rehab of the property. They “wouldn’t let the property be rehabbed on a shoestring, and let the buyer end up with a perpetually deteriorating property,” said Covert. Yet there was little consensus among Atlantis consultants on whether to rehab the property to “like new” condition or to just meet code standards. Stranske wanted the minimum amount of rehab in order to do more projects. Gold’s approach was, “Do the most work possible. We should do the best with what we’ve got. Whoever lives in and owns the building in the future will have their own set of issues to deal with.” Ultimately, the amount of rehab is a balance between short- and long-term concerns, funders’ requirements, building codes, and budget.

Rehab work included adding an elevator and secured access with a locked fence in the open area between the building’s two back wings. The three-story, three-wing building wraps around a central courtyard and has a back parking area. The building also has a secured entry vestibule. Open stairwells and corridors surround the interior courtyard, similar to atrium-style buildings in mild climates like California. Atlantis also filled in a swimming pool in the center of the courtyard and turned it into a flower garden.

Each unit also underwent moderate rehab, enough “to make the most of what was already there,” said TDR Construction’s Jim McNerny. Eight units were also specially adapted to provide features for people in wheelchairs, such as lower counters and switches, higher outlets, and buffers to prevent scuffing of the walls. Bathrooms feature pocket doors to save space, roll-in showers, and pedestal sinks with wing faucets.

TDR’s Jim McNerny served as general contractor for the rehab. He worked closely with city inspectors and argued for a more liberal interpretation of the handicapped access code – for example, allowing space for a k-turn rather than a circular turn in the bathroom, or counting the shower and the area under the sink as floor space, rather than insisting on a radius of clear floor space. “This was a different way of working,” said McNerny, “based on functional specifications, not what the code says….In moderate rehab we try hard to avoid city codes. The city was great in this case. They allowed us to do whatever.” Atlantis’s Jim Parker adds, “We’re not asking local officials to reduce standards for health and safety, just to allow us to use a different means of [meeting the code]. Our position is, ‘Don’t say that we can’t do something if it works just as well as the code standard.'”

After renovation, Atlantis leased wheelchair accessible units first, which “set a tone,” Tamley admitted. “The other 80 percent of the residents were turned off a bit. But the occupancy rate has stayed high.” Atlantis has continued working towards its goal of “universal design,” a concept that eliminates barriers that cause segregation of people with disabilities and avoids having to hold customized units vacant for people with disabilities.

Services

Atlantis plans to purchase four developments with government special needs money and other grants that will allow it to keep debt low enough to allocate rental income for services. Residents who fail to “qualify” for other benefits could still use these services. To meet the needs of severely disabled clients, Atlantis has developed a range of services, including home management, life education, attendant services, medical services, employment, recreation, and transportation. Atlantis also runs the Mark D. Ball Learning Center, which, under a contract from the Colorado Division of Rehabilitation, in conjunction with other area programs, offers basic education, life education, crafts and recreation, employment preparation, and job skills training.

The availability of home-based care for the seven Atlantis clients who live at New Heritage (some of whom need as many as three visits a day) has made independent living possible for some who would otherwise be forced to live in institutions. At New Heritage, a resident “maintendent” helps maintain the building and provides personal care to disabled tenants who require help dressing, cooking, bathing, or doing other activities.

Atlantis operates on the philosophy that people with disabilities should not be forced into a standard routine for the convenience of service providers. Jim Parker explained, “If someone is not home, the attendant comes back later. If someone doesn’t want to get up, it’s okay. We don’t compromise people’s health, but we give them a range of options….The very severely disabled want to have a life rather than be told what kind of life they can have.” Added Karen Tamley, “Atlantis is unique because it serves the highest support needs of the disabled….[Some] who have been threatened to live in nursing homes never had to because of Atlantis and New Heritage House Apartments.”

Property Management

For Atlantis, the most complicated part of the New Heritage project was not creating a setting for independent living, but the day-to-day business of managing a subsidized rental property. “A lot of nonprofit groups, like Atlantis, just don’t have the experience in hiring and supervising staff,” commented Atlantis Property Manager Jim Parker. Atlantis contracted with Faith Management, a Hope Communities subsidiary, to provide property management and management training to New Heritage staff.

Parker himself joined Atlantis after the two-year training period. He had been a Vista volunteer in El Paso when he met Atlantis staffers in the early 1980s through his work in the accessible transportation movement. “After working together on advocacy issues for so long, joining the staff was a natural evolution,” he recalled. “Right now my role is one of learning. I’m learning from Vikki and Ray, and you learn as you go.”

Atlantis’s commitment to hire people with disabilities, who may require special training or supervision, adds to the difficulty of training staff. Parker said using Atlantis clients for some procedures, such as cleaning units after tenants vacate, works only marginally. A client who had been doing the clean-up was unreliable, Parker said, so Atlantis will return to contracting for that service. Although hiring a cleaning service will cost more, there is a trade-off: having a unit cleaned more quickly allows it to be rented sooner.

Having to comply with several different sets of regulations further complicates managing the property. For example, rents must meet both RTC and FHLB criteria. In addition to the RTC’s deed restriction, setting aside 35 percent of the units for income-eligible residents, FHLB’s affordable housing program requires that households pay at least 20 percent of their income for rent. And some residents have Section 8 certificates that also involve reporting requirements. Tamley reports, “It takes one full staff person just to administer the project, to make sure tenants are in compliance.”

Bailey described Atlantis’s decision to hire him as resident manager. “At first, [Atlantis] felt like they didn’t need a resident manager. Then they found out that practically nobody but me and another woman were paying rent. ….Faith [Management] wrote a letter to all the residents, asking if anyone wanted to manage the building. I called them – they knew I had been in the real estate business – and I said I’d consider running the place if I could run it my way; but if not, I was thinking of moving…. So I wrote up a proposal, based on my past experience as a building property manager, got the job, and mostly what I wrote up then is still in place.”

Part of Bailey’s job is explaining the rent structure to each prospective New Heritage tenant. At the time of this research, New Heritage rents averaged $300 for a one-bedroom, $425 for a two-bedroom, and $350 for a handicapped accessible one-bedroom apartment. “Rents are up to $500 a month for similar apartments in other parts of Denver,” Tamley said. “…What do you do for people on SSI or fixed income? At market rent, few disabled people can afford to live independently and have some disposable income.”

Working with people with disabilities makes it harder to evict those with overdue rent, according to Parker. He said Atlantis has “carried” tenants, or charged them less, when they could not pay rent. “Part of this organization’s philosophy is in conflict with keeping the project up and running,” he said. “So I’ve become a little hard-nosed about it. It’s not that I want to be hard-nosed, but I feel I have to be.”

Tenant Selection

Like many of the bulk purchase properties, New Heritage had some drug problems. Rather than evicting dealers for criminal behavior, Tamley said, Atlantis just did not renew their leases. Since then, however, Atlantis has removed tenants for drunk and disorderly behavior or domestic violence problems. One tenant was evicted for non-payment of rent. Another, after being evicted, sued Atlantis in small claims court for the security deposit.

The tenancy has taken time to stabilize. Bailey contends that maintaining stability should only require “a good lease form, a good application form, and a good set of rules.” He said New Heritage’s rules are “just common sense. As long as they don’t swear, don’t get drunk in the courtyard, great, I’ll give them a chance. The one thing I insist on is cleanliness of the property, though. People would litter. Now, there is very little of that. I think this block is one of the cleanest blocks in the neighborhood.”

Disabled residents must also abide by the rules. “Some disabled people need to be ready to live in a nice place,” Auberger said. “They have to learn that they can’t leave trash around, stuff like that. If they are not willing to live by the rules, somebody else is.”

To fill vacancies, staff members consult with management of nearby buildings, rely on word of mouth, and place ads, if necessary. Bailey said a good application form is crucial in gathering credit information, job history, and references, but added, “If you don’t follow the form and check the information out, I’ll guarantee that if you’re running an apartment house, you will go broke.” He said Faith Management incorporated HUD and CHFA requirements into the basic form he gave them. Bailey’s rules alone cover two legal-size sheets. “It’s written in blunt language,” he admitted. “It looks formidable. People come in and look at the first few paragraphs, and the people you don’t want won’t come back. I give them the rules first, then I hand them the application.”

But Parker said vacancies are taking longer to fill than they should. Some of this is due to slowness in getting the units cleaned, he noted, “But some is due to the style of the on-site manager, who is a little gruff, and not as aggressive about renting as one might want. Yet you can’t please everyone.” Auberger added, “I would rather have vacant units than problem tenants. A few people can have a negative effect on the whole project.”

Resident Profile

New Heritage residents who responded to a survey included several single men and women, one single mother and young child, and a married couple with a young child. Adults ranged in age from 22 to 82 years, with a median age of 34. Three were over 60. Limited information was available on residents’ ethnic backgrounds. Three identified themselves as African American, one as Hispanic, one as American Indian, and one as Asian. Eight reported their incomes as less than $10,000. Two households listed incomes over $25,000. Of six respondents who are neither retired nor receiving SSI, the mean income is $12,500. Five residents commute to work by car and four use public transit.

Among 10 residents interviewed, five had lived at New Heritage for less than a year; four had lived there between one and three years; and only one had lived there more than three years. Just before moving into their current apartment, seven had lived in the Denver area, and two had moved from other states.

Resident Satisfaction

Six of the residents surveyed described themselves as satisfied or very satisfied with their apartments, two were neutral, and two were dissatisfied. Yet nine described the present condition of their apartment as fair, good, or excellent. Not surprisingly, half of the respondents cited the availability of services, ability to live independently, and accessibility of the units as important considerations in the decision to move to New Heritage. Eight out of 10, however, also cited low rent as an important consideration, and six reported that living at New Heritage has made them feel more financially secure. Five said that they would feel sorry if they had to move, and eight had no plans to move.

Residents offered mixed responses to questions of security. About half reported fearing crime in the neighborhood, and half said they did not. Six felt area crime had remained the same or only increased moderately, while three felt it had increased greatly. Only two felt a need for increased security in the building, while five felt the need for more security in the neighborhood. Yet when asked to identify problems from a list, the respondents nearly unanimously responded “no” to each choice, such as run-down buildings, inaccessibility, litter, street crime, burglaries, harassment, drug-related activity, and lack of recreation facilities. Further, when asked what they thought neighborhood conditions would be like in two years, almost all said conditions would stay the same or improve.

When Atlantis surveyed tenants as to whether they would want to hold meetings or set up an association, most said they did not feel a need to become involved in such activities. A bulletin board hangs in the front vestibule for posting community notices, and the resident manager is usually home and will speak with residents. The building’s layout allows residents to cross paths in the courtyard or see each other coming and going in the open corridors, so residents at least know each other by sight. Most of the disabled residents are also Atlantis clients, and many work in the Atlantis office. While the clients who visit or work in the office are not directly involved in property management, they do see Atlantis’s property manager Parker, program director Tamley, and executive director Auberger on a regular basis and have plenty of opportunity to voice an opinion.

Organizational Capacity

The New Heritage project was meant to be a learning experience for Atlantis staff. Unfortunately, staff turnover has pushed the learning curve back a bit. Karen Tamley commented, “It takes some time to train people. ….So the shuffling of staff has contributed to a lot of headaches. And because we’ve never done a project like this before, future projects will probably be a lot easier. We’ll probably be dealing with the same agencies and we’ll be more familiar with the reporting procedures.”

Tamley said Atlantis is also unique in its efforts to hire disabled employees. “I didn’t have a background in housing, but I had other relevant political and advocacy skills. It’s hard to find qualified disabled staff; the disabled are highly undereducated as a group. And this is not just a job, it’s more of a lifestyle. ….All of us are learning on the job. But we are committed to independent living. Atlantis prefers to hire people who both share the philosophy and have a disability.”

Bailey, however, thought Atlantis should hire a knowledgeable real estate professional. “Any multi-family property owner, in order to survive, has to be a financial mechanic, know real estate law and financing backwards and forwards, and be willing to study the particular market they are in,” he said. “…Then, there is a need to know actual costs and know how to supervise contractors. Atlantis is learning. They are not kids in this business any more.”

John Atlas
John Atlas is a found of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.
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Ellen Shoshkes is an architect and planner based in Hoboken, New Jersey. Ellen is was formerly director of housing research in the Architecture and Building Sciences Group at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She co-authored Saving Affordable Housing for NHI.

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