Competing needs: Copley Hospital seeks to convert senior apartments to worker housing
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
Sandy Harris felt lucky when she landed a room at Copley Terrace nearly six years ago. Long before, her aunt had lived at the subsidized senior apartment complex in Morrisville, and Harris had a good impression of the place: the people were friendly, the apartments small, but nice. And if she developed medical issues as she aged, Copley Hospital, which happened to own the apartments, was located just down the road.
The 77-year-old retired nurse had decided to return to Vermont after leaving a bad relationship in Florida. While other residents reported waiting a year and a half or longer, she managed to secure a place at the Terrace in a matter of months. She quickly became a part of the community, decorating her door with signs that said things like “Enter With a Happy Heart,” and signing up to be a resident superintendent, helping if a neighbor got locked out. The best part was her rent, which at $352 a month was a third of her monthly Social Security income.
But in September 2022, a letter came along that shook Harris’s sense of security.
“When Copley Hospital started to build Copley Terrace, 40 years ago — they never predicted that they would have a housing crisis themselves,” read the letter from the hospital’s chief administration officer, Wayne Stockbridge.
It went on to say that Copley’s original, 40-year contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would expire in a year. And with the end of that contract, Copley had “been approved” to convert some of the 38 apartments at Copley Terrace into accommodations for short-term or traveling hospital staff.
The hospital promised not to kick out residents, explaining that they’d wait for apartments to become vacant. Still, residents worried the writing was on the wall. Harris said she wanted to be “proactive” and began calling around to other subsidized senior apartment complexes. One, in Essex, told her it had a three to five year waitlist.
In the year since that first letter arrived, Copley leadership has begun transitioning some apartments at the Terrace into accommodations for its staff — although it’s run into a hitch with the federal housing department that should prevent it from actually renting out those units for at least a year.
The situation illuminates a trade-off spurred by Vermont’s tight housing market. Many employers— hospitals among them — struggle to retain and recruit workers, citing a lack of available housing as the source of their hiring woes. Meanwhile, older Vermont residents say they struggle to secure affordable housing, and make up an increasingly large share of the state’s unhoused population.
Despite the hospital’s pledges not to evict anyone, several residents at the Terrace who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said Copley’s plans for the building have left them with a feeling of uncertainty.
Harris said she doesn’t think the hospital is trying to hurt anyone, and recognizes their staffing needs are challenging – and that having housing nearby could help.
“It’s a good financial situation for them,” she said. “But it would be sad to lose this for the seniors in this area.”
An ‘impossible decision’
Copley Terrace was built with funding from HUD’s Section 202 program, dedicated to financing supportive housing for the elderly. According to the department’s website, the program “provides interest-free capital advances” that do not need to be repaid “as long as the project serves very low-income elderly persons for 40 years.” A Section 8 contract covers the majority of tenants’ rents.
In anticipation of hitting that 40-year mark in 2023, Copley leadership began to share their vision for a “hybrid model” in the building. The first two floors would remain HUD housing, and the top floor would be reserved for the hospital’s “own housing need,” according to a letter sent to residents this June.
In its first communication with residents in September 2022, Copley leadership said it intended to “partially renew” its Section 8 contract with HUD, keeping 26 units as subsidized housing and converting 12 for hospital use. (The majority of Copley Terrace’s 38 units are dedicated to seniors; two are open to younger people with disabilities).
HUD and the Vermont State Housing Authority “offered preliminary approval” of Copley’s request to shift to this hybrid model in the summer of 2022, according to Emily McKenna, executive director of development, marketing, and community relations for Copley Health Systems, in an email to VTDigger/Vermont Public.
“We know there is a direct connection between the hospital labor shortage and the availability of affordable, local short-term housing,” McKenna wrote. “Copley, like healthcare providers statewide, is in critical need of housing close to the hospital for essential healthcare workers.”
In an interview, McKenna said the units would be for “traveling clinicians and staff” – generally people who are not living locally — and that Copley would “pay a competitive market rate” for the units, though declined to provide further details about the arrangement.
Kim Fitzgerald, CEO of Cathedral Square, an affordable housing provider for older residents in northwest Vermont, described Copley’s predicament as an “impossible decision” forced by Vermont’s housing market and “underfunded” healthcare system.
“We should be both providing affordable housing and keeping whatever stock we already have — in fact, we should be growing it,” she said. “But we also need to keep — I’m assuming in their case — care at our hospitals. Because we can’t have hospitals closing down, either.”
A 2019 study by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency concluded that, compared to younger renters, senior renters were relatively well-served by Vermont’s affordable housing portfolio. Yet, from her vantage point, Fitzgerald said demand for subsidized senior housing remains high. Cathedral Square currently serves about 1,300 residents in its apartments, which include both independent and assisted living arrangements — and it has over 1,200 people on its waiting list, she said.
An unexpected rejection
As of Oct. 1, six units at the Terrace had been transitioned to use by hospital staff, according to a factsheet shared by McKenna.
But, to Copley’s surprise, a few weeks later HUD rejected its request to rent those units to staff.
The federal department turned down the proposal “due to a concern with how funding for the six available units would be reallocated,” McKenna wrote in an email. “This concern had not been communicated to Copley Hospital leadership before the rejection,” McKenna added. She also noted that the hospital had scaled back its request from 12 units to six.
In an email, Christine Baumann, a public affairs officer in HUD’s Boston office, said that in order to reduce the number of units included in its Section 8 contract, Copley would need to go through a specific process to transfer the “budget authority” to other housing projects in the community. That process is meant to preserve subsidized housing from disappearing when a contract expires.
Since learning that its request was rejected, Copley has pivoted, and is now seeking a one-year Section 8 renewal for all units at Copley Terrace, according to McKenna.
Asked about Copley’s plans for the Terrace after that year is up, McKenna wrote that “no decisions have been made.”
“Ultimately, this doesn’t solve the hospital’s bigger staffing shortage, which impacts our capacity to care for the community,” she wrote.
But as vacancies have opened when people have died or moved over the last several months, Copley has not filled them, residents said. Copley leadership did not answer questions about the status of the waitlist, though an apartment listing for the building notes the waitlist is closed.
By next week, there will be nine empty apartments at the Terrace, Harris said.
In early November, a reporter viewed units that had been fully furnished, whereas units for tenants typically come unfurnished. And Harris, as a resident superintendent, said she was recently notified by hospital management that a nurse would be staying at the Terrace for several days this month.
Asked how Copley’s transition of the units squares with its request to renew all units in the building, Baumann, from HUD, said the department has advised the Vermont State Housing Authority – which administers local HUD contracts – that units at the Terrace “be rented to eligible families.” (VSHA directed all inquiries about Copley Terrace to HUD).
Harris said Copley leadership has not communicated with residents since September, when she received a letter saying Copley’s plans for the Terrace had “not changed” since the first letter she received a year prior.
She is worried what Copley might decide to do with the Terrace in the long run. So she’s putting in applications to other subsidized senior apartments – including some out of state.
“I just feel like I’ve got to cover my bases,” she said. “I don’t want to be out in the cold.”
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