Jim Fisher sat in town meetings in Fountain City listening to officials discuss the need for senior housing in their small town in Indiana. The town had commissioned a housing study that showed its older residents needed some affordable options. There was just one problem: the town had no open land available. Fisher, the 2008-09 president of the Fountain City Lions Club, realized he could help. The club had been sitting on a piece of property, purchased from the farm bureau a decade earlier but still undeveloped. Fisher thought, why not build some apartments for seniors on it? The board agreed, and before long, the 16-member Fountain City club had secured more than $1 million in funding to build Lions Park. The 12-unit complex, limited to senior citizens who meet federal guidelines for low income, opened last October. “We’ve had two open houses. The people that have been in them are amazed at the room there is,” Fisher said of the 600-square-foot units. How did such a small club pull off such a big project? Their secret weapon was a grant administration firm that didn’t get paid until the grants were awarded. Kenna Consulting and Management Group, based in Indianapolis, specializes in securing grants for affordable housing projects. “We feel like we know what a good, fundable project is, so we feel good putting our time and effort into it,” said Angie Pappano, a Kenna vice president who worked closely with the Fountain City Lions to get the funding. “This was a large project for that community, but the need was absolutely there.” Affordable housing doesn’t sound like it would be a problem in a town of less than 1,000. But a senior making half the median income for the area would have to travel 10 miles outside of town to Richmond, Indiana, just to get on a waiting list for an apartment he could afford. As America’s population ages and stretches its lifespan well past retirement, more seniors are in need of a place they can manage on their own and offer access to some services for their physical and mental well-being. Lions have been helping to meet that need for decades in other communities by operating rent-subsidized housing in all shapes and sizes, from a California high-rise to a camplike compound of bungalows in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The need will only grow as the baby boomers surge into retirement. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-fifth of the population will be age 65 or older by 2030. Most of the properties have been built with governmental support, such as grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. In exchange, the clubs must follow federal guidelines to maintain the rental assistance that puts the apartments within reach of people living on fixed incomes. These aren’t assisted-living centers or nursing homes. The housing provided by Lions is limited to senior residents who are self-sufficient. In the U.S., subsidized housing is available to seniors age 62 and up. Some facilities are also accessible to disabled residents in wheelchairs, of any age, who are otherwise independent. Demand is high for these units, which have waiting lists up to three years long. Seniors must be 62 before they even apply for a slot. Then there are the income guidelines for Section 8 housing. In the U.S., rents are set at a percentage of the resident’s adjusted income, which must be about 60 percent of the median income for their area or less. It’s usually graduated depending on income. Rents at the Fountain City apartments range from $260 to $403 a month, plus deposit and utilities. Lions on the Scene Housing is a long-term commitment, far more hands-on than raising money for scholarships or food banks. But the Lion landlords who oversee and maintain the properties say the work is both a major responsibility and a rewarding endeavor. “The buck stops with the Lions because we own the facility, we have a mortgage payable to HUD, and we have to keep applying for Section 8 financing,” said Alex McDonald, chairman of the Lions Community Service Corp. in San Diego. The non-profit LCSC was established by the San Diego Downtown Lions Club to oversee Lions Manor, a high-rise built in 1981. There are 131 one-bedroom units in the building, and residents have access to a community room, game room, and TV room on the first floor. McDonald, an appellate court judge, said the Lions recently started an on-site library for residents as well. “We’re not involved with residents on a day-to-day basis,” McDonald said. “But we try to have some contact when we can. Throughout the year we sponsor parties on different holidays for all the residents.” The club retains a private firm to manage and maintain Lions Community Manor, which is governed by the LCSC’s 14- member board; its members must belong to the downtown club. But the Lions still have a strong presence on site. The club meets weekly in the manor’s community room, which was built with private funding — HUD money is strictly for housing. Nearly every day of the week, a Lion committee is meeting there, too. The smaller the facility, the more likely you are to see Lions in a hands-on role. Lions are on site at the Lions Club of Calgary Bungalows nearly every day, says Bill Baux, the club’s treasurer last year. Its bungalow committee takes care of the grounds at the compound of stand-alone units and duplexes for 35 residents. They also have dinners and game nights for the residents several times a year and take care of renting the units when residents move out, Baux said. “When we go to a bigger size, I think our involvement will probably decrease,” Baux said. Buildings Age, too If the 80-year-old Calgary club gets its wish, it’ll soon be ready to raze the original bungalows, which were built in the 1950s. In their place, the club wants to build a 104-suite, four-story structure to house 150 seniors. Preliminary estimates put the cost at $20 million. The economic slowdown has temporarily idled the project in the early planning stage, but the need for an upgrade remains. “The insulation is not great. They’re drafty and cold, and they’re starting to become something of a money drag,” Baux said. “They’re 60 years old; they’ve had their day.” The Lions Club of Calgary has reached out to the other 52 clubs in its district to support the expansion. The goal is for each club to commit $20,000, Baux said. The club will also seek funds from charitable foundations and the Canadian government, Which Baux said is traditionally supportive of programs for people with limited income. “Depending on how much government support we can garner, there are additional funds out there for us,” Baux said. “We may not be able to do it this year, but we’re all optimistic we can get it done.” Major renovations are also overdue at the 28-year-old Lions Community Manor in San Diego, McDonald said. Last year, a top-to-bottom inspection of the building brought a number of repair needs to light. Since then, the facility has replaced leaking balconies, upgraded the electrical system, and renovated the community room. Next up: replacing the elevators, to the tune of $220,000. And McDonald said there is still $1 million to $5 million worth of renovations needed within the next few years. The facility maintains a reserve fund, as required by HUD, but it’s just shy of half a million. “This may ultimately become one of the Lions’ major fundraising activities,” McDonald said. Partners in Funding Fortunately for projects like affordable housing, grants from public and private sources are widely available. The Kenna Corp. of Indiana, which helped the Fountain City Lions shape their proposals, ultimately helped them land three awards that paid for about 90 percent of their project: • $555,000 from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, which distributes community block grant money from HUD • $350,000 through the Federal Home Loan Bank program, which works in partnership with local banks • $18,269 from the Wayne County Foundation The club filled the gap with a $176,000 loan, plus money from its regular fundraisers. At Levi Coffin Days, the town’s annual fall festival, the club makes money renting vendor space and selling thousands of pork chops and steaks cooked over a giant five-foot-long grill. Members also build and rent out parade floats. Pappano, the Kenna vice president, said she’s still in touch with Fisher and his cohort on the housing project, treasurer Bonnie Roark. “They’re amazing and not scared of anything,” Pappano said. “Non-profit groups are great to work with because it’s in their heart. If you work with no pay, it has to be there, right?” McDonald, who has been a San Diego Downtown Lion since the manor was first proposed, said the club had a similar partnership with a consulting group to secure funding. It also partnered with the city of San Diego to make Lions Community Manor one of the initial projects in its downtown redevelopment efforts — a priority of then-Mayor Pete Wilson, who went on to become governor of California. The city wanted to provide housing in blighted areas, McDonald said, especially for the elderly and handicapped who were living in decrepit conditions, or who would be displaced by other new developments in the area. Lions Community Manor became a true cooperative effort between HUD and the City Centre Development Corp., which provided the downtown property for the apartments. In October 1981, the first residents were selected by lottery and moved in. McDonald said the partnership holds the Lions to a 50-year agreement to operate the building as affordable housing for seniors and disabled residents. Raising Awareness But that wasn’t the Lions’ original goal for a housing project. A decade before Lions Community Manor was built, the downtown club had decided to fulfill the Lions’ core mission by offering housing for the blind. Club leaders approached San Diego’s blind community, McDonald said, only to learn their idea wasn’t welcome. Advocates for the blind thought a dedicated housing project would only isolate them further from the rest of the community. So the downtown Lions regrouped and settled on a project that would both help older residents and revitalize the city core. “We try to focus our charitable contributions in the downtown area,” McDonald said. “We partner with downtown schools to provide all kinds of help for teachers and reading programs.” The high-rise building also serves as a high-profile, tangible presence for the Lions in San Diego, McDonald said, at a time when they need all the visibility they can get. “I think it’s been very impressive to people for recruitment. Service clubs are not as popular as they used to be, but nevertheless there are many people in the community who feel a need to make a difference. When they see what we’ve done, they can see that here’s a group where they could be effective and make a contribution.” Baux, a 25-year member of the Lions Club of Calgary, said the group isn’t attracting young members like it used to, either. But having an older membership has helped them to understand better the needs of its Bungalow residents. “The housing we’re offering is for the low-income, and most Lions aren’t,” Baux said, “but it still brings to mind that we’re all going to have to find somewhere else to live eventually.”
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