Guest Commentary: Response to Davis Enterprise on Senior Housing

imageCity of Davis

Special to The People’s Vanguard of Davis

By Elaine Roberts Musser


It was with some disquiet that I read Claire St. John’s Jan. 2, 2009 article in the Davis Enterprise, entitled “Senior Living”. I immediately fired off a clarification of my position to the Enterprise that same day. I wanted to make clear the reader understood 1) I was speaking as an individual and not in my capacity as the Chair of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission; 2) the issue of how much senior housing is considered necessary in the future was left completely out of the article. Because I have no 350 word limit as is required in the Enterprise, it would be my privilege to take this opportunity to more fully express my individual opinion. I was asked by Claire St. John what I thought were the most pressing senior needs in Davis. The list I gave included four items: 1) senior housing; 2) transportation; 3) elder abuse prevention; 4) greater fiscal responsibility with respect to city finances.

A lengthy discussion ensued about each item on the list, and what was being done on a city and county level to address these four issues – since I wear both a city and county hat. (I am Chair of the Triad Task Force, the action arm of the Yolo County Commission on Aging & Adult Services.) I mentioned transit mobility training and roving legal clinics at the county level, and talked of my concerns about the city budgeting process. I offered to Claire contact information for various people, to facilitate follow-up discussions – in an effort to assist the research process about her proposed article on senior needs.

However, Ms. St. John’s article only dealt with senior housing, and in my opinion left out the critical element the two of us had thoroughly discussed. How much senior housing is necessary? I doubt anyone would disagree that between now and the year 2013 that some more senior housing options would be nice, as was suggested in the article. Especially to give some desired competition to already existing and very expensive assisted living or continuum of care facilities in Davis. But what specific number of senior housing units would be essential is the million dollar question, the big fat elephant in the room!

In the article, only one number was discussed. The plan under contemplation at the old Covell Village site would have about 800 units of senior housing over ten years. This is an all or nothing approach. Are we only left with two possible options: 800 units or zero growth? In fact a city staff report put the internal need for more senior housing at an estimated maximum of 150 units between now and the year 2013, which from my perspective seems considerably more realistic than 800.

Claire St. John’s article relies heavily on the notion of “downsizing”, i.e. moving to a smaller home to cut down on maintenance needs. Ironically, statistics show that people prefer to remain in their home until the day they die. Often there is an emotional attachment to one’s residence. It is where children are raised and grow up. I doubt very many seniors would want to sell their home for the good of the community just to free up housing for younger families, as was put forward in the article as a reason for development of more senior housing. Nor do many seniors want to live in an age-restricted complex, preferring to live among younger folks.

Some months ago, I strongly advocated for the Davis Senior Citizens Commission to create a set of housing guidelines. The idea was to give developers and the City Council some guidance as to what seniors were interested in, and delineate their concerns. I felt it was time to reverse the trend of new housing in Davis being developer-driven. Such principles that involve sensible planning might also cut down on the divisiveness that seems to come with every discussion in Davis about growth. These guidelines are very close to being finished, but still require a bit of tweaking.

The gist of the guidelines, without getting into specifics, is as follows: 1) provide housing options for seniors of all income levels, with an eye toward meeting “internal” rather than “external” demand; 2) taking into account the fiscal impact of an increase in cost of city services that will entail. Too often residential growth has been initiated under the policy “ build it and they shall come”. Ultimately the developers reap a handsome profit. However, the inherent costs of such a careless strategy have not been fully borne by developers, but rather city taxpayers are forced to make up the difference, which has been substantial.

We are now facing a city budget crisis of epic proportions. Much of that cost is for road repair, and city employee benefits. Costs intrinsic to residential development. To put it bluntly, a massive influx of seniors would further strain the county social welfare system, city fire and ambulance services, city and county medical facilities, etc., above and beyond normal city and county services. Shouldn’t we be trying to further commercial development first, to bring in more tax revenue to pay for existing city services, let alone pay for any new ones created by more development?

Another issue raised in the article is of deep personal concern. “Part of their concept is a community…managed by residents. Maintenance would be paid for out of a homeowners association fund.” As a Board member of the Center for CA Homeowners Association Law (CCHAL), I can tell you from personal experience as an attorney, homeowners associations are rife with opportunities for elder abuse. A homeowners association is not the panacea many assume it is. In fact homeowners associations, and the management companies and debt collection agencies they hire, can perpetrate some of the worst cases of abuse on record. It can include taking away a person’s home and selling it for as little as $1.20; and can result in the death of the homeowner from the stress of any foreclosure proceedings.

I would strongly advise the City Council to tread very carefully, when planning future housing in general, and senior housing in particular. My hope is our commission’s guidelines will serve as a set of talking points, to begin appropriate discussion on projected residential development of senior housing. If the City Council finds these guidelines useful, I would encourage the planning commission to come up with a similar set of guidelines for overall residential development. It serves for better long range planning, should cut down on incivility in community discussion, and will better provide for actual community needs.

Elaine Roberts Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs. If you have a comment or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed, please make your observations at the end of this article in the comment section.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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14 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Response to Davis Enterprise on Senior Housing”

  1. Anonymous

    In addition to the splendid observations in the article. There is the matter of money. I will stay in my big house for all the reasons mentioned. However, even if I wanted to move to a smaller house I would have to sell my house for bottom dollar and buy the new housing for top dollar. If for no other reason, I am staying put. Besides my children would never stand for the family home to be sold.Doug Minnis

  2. Mitch Mifkin

    Exactly. I bought my big house cheap, so my taxes are cheap and my mortgage is almost paid off. Why would I downgrade and end up paying more property tax?Only way it would make sense would be if I moved to a cheaper place to live, but if I like it here, I wouldn’t have any desire to leave. When you get older, it’s also best to stay somewhere that you have friends and are familiar with.

  3. Anonymous

    1)I am certain that there have been ample opportunities for seniors in town to downsize and yet this has not happened. 2)The seniors I know do not want to go live in housing for seniors only. They like having younger people around. 3) There is a risk that large senior developments will create a voting block that will make it difficult to pass education bonds. This has happened in communities with …Sun City… developments where the seniors have little or no connection with local families with children, resulting in a disregard for local education issues.

  4. Don Shor

    The Covell Village site was ranked 32 our of 37 housing sites by the Housing Element Steering Committee. That process involved countless hours of volunteers, significant public input, and appears to have been a consensus. So why is this site under discussion now? If the HESC ranking is a guide to city planning, it would be years before the site would even be considered. How much senior housing would be provided, even hypothetically, by development of the …green light… sites (1 – 20), or the other ten …yellow light… sites that are ahead of the Covell Village site? Is senior housing in as short supply as student housing in Davis?

  5. Anonymous

    I don’t understand this focus on seniors who have a giant house in Davis, who like living there, and who aren’t thinking of moving to a smaller house. Wouldn’t any new senior housing NOT be for seniors in that situation, but for seniors who may be living with other family members temporarily, are in a senior housing that they are not happy with and would like to move to a better one, live outside of Davis but would want to move to Davis to a small senior house to be closer to family, etc. I think we should let Covell Village develop senior-appropriate housing that is interspersed with other housing- not a bunch of senior units all in the same place.

  6. My View

    …I think we should let Covell Village develop senior-appropriate housing that is interspersed with other housing- not a bunch of senior units all in the same place….Covell Village partners do not want to build what the community needs, but what maximizes their profit. So what they have in mind is to build a senior community of 800 units near Nugget, which is what they had planned to do originally anyway. Then that will give them the toehold they need to build the upper 2/3rds of the rest of the area, and lo and behold there will be a humongous housing development for all ages that: 1) does not meet the internal needs of the community, but instead will bring in a massive influx of seniors from outside of Davis;2) seniors in Davis will now be subject to huge taxes to pay for all the new city services that will be needed for all this new residential development;3) the developers will walk off with a whopping huge profit, not paying their fair share of the costs, which will fall to the taxpayer.

  7. Senior Who Wants To Stay Put

    …There is the matter of money. I will stay in my big house for all the reasons mentioned. However, even if I wanted to move to a smaller house I would have to sell my house for bottom dollar and buy the new housing for top dollar. If for no other reason, I am staying put. Besides my children would never stand for the family home to be sold….The Covell Village people refuse to acknowledge statistics that show most seniors want to stay in their own homes, and do not want to move. In fact I have heard these developers and their friends say they don’t believe those statistics. How convenient!

  8. Rich Rifkin

    …I bought my big house cheap, so my taxes are cheap and my mortgage is almost paid off. Why would I downgrade and end up paying more property tax?…That’s a dilemma brought about by Prop 13. While it is beneficial to insure homeowners (especially retired homeowners of modest means) that an extraordinary increase in the paper value of their homes will not result in a consequentially unaffordable increase in their property taxes, that insurance has the negative effect of making a downsizing move much more expensive for a long-time homeowner.In theory, the problem could be solved by permitting someone who is paying property taxes at half the value of his current property to pay at half the value of his subsequent property, as long as the subsequent house is bought for less than the current. But that fails the fairness test — even more than Prop 13 already does.

  9. Rich Rifkin

    A different law reinforces the incentive for many seniors of modest means to never sell their houses: If a senior needs nursing home care and has little or no insurance for it (which is true of the majority seniors), that person will qualify for MediCal. MediCal, however, will first liquidate all of the senior’s assets: taking any money from Social Security, a pension, stocks and bonds, savings, personal property, etc, until nothing is left. The one asset that MediCal cannot touch is a primary residence. As such, the higher percentage of a senior’s net worth which is tied up in his home, the lower percentage of his assets will be lost if he ends up in a nursing home for the last few years of his life.Thus, a senior who is in this situation and wants to leave an inheritance for his children will be worse off selling his house. (If the equity in the house is more than $750,000, MediCal will claim the marginal value when the house is sold.)By the way, it used to be the case that many seniors, facing this situation, would gift off all of their assets to their heirs prior to going on Medicaid. But in 2005, Congress passed a law to prevent that.Wikipedia: The legislation will extend Medicaid’s …lookback… period for all asset transfers from three to five years and change the start of the penalty period for transferred assets from the date of transfer to the date when the individual transferring the assets enters a nursing home and would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid coverage. In other words, the penalty period does not begin until the nursing home resident is out of funds, meaning she cannot afford to pay the nursing home.Because the change in the penalty period start date will likely leave nursing homes on the hook for the care of residents waiting out extended penalty periods, ElderLawAnswers has dubbed the bill

  10. Letter to the Editor

    Published in today’s Davis Enterprise:LETTERS: Commission helps guide planningElaine Roberts Musser | Davis | January 10, 2009 22:39With great interest I read Claire St. John’s Jan. 2 article titled ‘Senior Living.’ Discussed was the recent debate in regard to senior housing in Davis, and whether there is a need for more options. Since I was quoted extensively in the piece, I would like to note two things in clarification. First, I was speaking as an individual, and not in my capacity as the chairwoman of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission. Second, the issue of how much senior housing is needed in the future was left out of the picture entirely. It is one thing to posit the notion that more senior housing options are needed. It is quite another to make the leap of faith that we will need as many as 800 units between now and 2013, as developers suggest. Our commission is putting the finishing touches on a set of senior housing guidelines, which lists various factors that should be taken into account before any housing developments are proposed. This discussion was considered by city staff, who ultimately estimated only a maximum (upper limit) of 150 more units of senior housing would be required. The disconnect between these two figures of developers as opposed to city staff is stark. It is probably attributable to the difference between 1) an expensive wish list versus 2) what is essential and we can afford as a city. The reality is that Davis suffers from a serious budget deficit. Building more residential housing requires more city services we cannot meet the expense for at this time. Davis citizens have already been hit with a massive sewer increase, and may see their water rates increase even more. Add to the mix the expense for excessively more city services, and a recipe for disaster will be created. It is imperative that the City Council tread carefully in the future, moving forward with good planning principles. Our commission hopes to provide a set of guidelines that will assist in that process. Elaine Roberts Musser Davis

  11. Letters to the Editor

    Published in today’s Davis Enterprise:Planning should address all needs Eric Gelber | Davis | January 10, 2009 22:39Claire St. John’s article, ‘Senior living: Should developers focus on small homes for retirees?’ (Enterprise, Jan. 2), describes the undeniable shortage of housing in Davis suitable to meet the needs of seniors. It does not follow, however, that the solution is the development of a huge seniors-only community, as has been proposed by local developers for the former Covell Village site. There may be a place for age-restricted continuing care communities. And, with unlimited resources, such alternatives could be made available to all those who want them. But when resources – including developable land and public funding – are in such short supply, communities should seriously consider whether they can afford this exclusionary housing model for the relatively few seniors who would choose it, particularly if they had viable, inclusive alternatives. Most housing needs of seniors are not unique to that age group. People with disabilities, regardless of age, need accessible housing and often use supportive services. Many low-income families and others need and rely on public and private alternative transportation options. Many nonseniors – including individuals, couples and small families – prefer smaller homes. Low-income households of all ages need affordable housing. Local planning priorities should address the housing and related needs of all Davis residents, including seniors. But, with resources in short supply, we must carefully consider whether we can afford to meet the needs of one group by large-scale development of segregated, restricted communities that deny housing opportunities to others with similar needs based solely on age. Eric Gelber Davis

  12. Anonymous

    As people discuss …senior needs… I wonder how people define …senior…. When I was younger I thought senior was anyone over 55, but now 65 or 70 makes more sense. My point is the people could be lumping everyone from 55 on up in the …senior… category – a very broad group of people. Within that age range there are very different needs and wants.

  13. Elaine Roberts Musser

    …As people discuss …senior needs… I wonder how people define …senior…….This is a good point, and is addressed in the senior housing guidelines of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission. We don’t define the term …senior…, but insist that it be defined in terms of specific age. The problem is that often funding for residential development of any kind that comes from gov’t or other sources (such as gov’t subsidized affordable housing) comes with certain age restrictions, sometimes 62 and over, sometimes 65 and over, etc….I agree that our community needs to have a discussion about senior housing, as it does about other types of housing. It starts by asking the community rather then continuing to allow Covell Village Partners to lead the discussion….I could not agree more. Thanks Eileen, for giving a basic history of what has gone on in regard to the Covell Village site in terms of residential development proposals. The entire point of the senior housing guidelines is to force developers to come to grips with senior concerns before they make proposals. For instance, is there an …internal… demand for 800 units in Davis? What will be the cost in city services of such a development? If such a senior community were to be built, how are the issue of transportation, increased smog, etc. addressed?

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