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St. Vincent de Paul suggests studio apartments for seniors

General manager presents concept to Commission on Aging

Posted: August 10, 2012 - 12:06am
Dan Austin, General Manager of St Vincent de Paul, stands on property across from Smith Hall where he hopes one day to build more affordable housing for seniors. The first phase is to extend Smith Hall to the right for housing that will be ready in the spring of 2014.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Dan Austin, General Manager of St Vincent de Paul, stands on property across from Smith Hall where he hopes one day to build more affordable housing for seniors. The first phase is to extend Smith Hall to the right for housing that will be ready in the spring of 2014.

Juneau does not have enough affordable housing for senior citizens, the general manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society told the Juneau Commission on Aging Thursday morning, but a solution could be on the way.

At the Juneau Senior Center, Dan Austin said the Smith Hall low-income housing development for the elderly could be expanded to provide more Juneau seniors with low-cost housing.

“There’s been no supportive housing for seniors built in this town since 1998 when we completed Smith Hall,” Austin said.

The Smith Hall Studios project, as Austin outlined it, would add 12 handicapped-accessible studio apartments, built to LEED standards, as an extension to Smith Hall in the Mendenhall Valley.

“Our costs come down … if we can build a small, delightful unit at a price that people can afford,” said Austin.

That means each unit in the Smith Hall Studios could be rented for $500 per month, according to Austin — sharply lower than the $799 per month rent for a single-bedroom apartment in Smith Hall. That would reduce the need for government subsidies to bridge the gap between what low-income seniors are able to pay and the cost of each unit.

But that level of self-sustainability and affordability, Austin added, depends on the Smith Hall Studios’ management not having to shoulder the cost of a mortgage. That would require a “community investment” toward the cost of construction.

“We do them with grants and public funding, but then we never tap the public resource again,” said Austin of the project’s funding. “That’s the important thing. What we have to do is get our policymakers — the guys that hold the purse-strings up there — to understand that when we come to (them) and we ask for a million or two million dollars, it’s a one-time investment. It is not going to be $75,000 a year for the next 10 years, or $75,000 a year for the next 30 years. We build it, we operate it as a sustainable operation not requiring government funding.”

Austin asked that the commission consider going to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly to request $1 million for the project, estimated total costs of which his presentation gave as between $2 million and $2.5 million.

The rest of the funding could come from a variety of sources both public, such as the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. or the Alaska State Legislature, and private, such as charitable foundations, Austin added. He said that construction could begin as soon as next summer and finish by spring 2014 under the most optimistic timeframe.

Members of the commission expressed interest in the proposed development.

“This is a problem! We can’t just throw it off in a back room of some place,” exclaimed commission secretary Loretta Bevegni of Juneau’s shortage of housing for seniors. “We need to deal with it as a city.”

Austin said after the meeting that the Smith Hall Studios would be “phase one” of a longer-range affordable housing project called Home Run.

“When Home Run is completed, there will be more than 100 units of affordable housing built,” said Austin. “The entire Home Run project will include one-bedroom, two-bedroom, three-bedroom (apartments) for seniors and families … for people from zero percent to 80 percent of area median income.”

The price tag for Home Run, not including the Smith Hall Studios, is estimated at roughly $15 million, Austin said. The land that the project would occupy is currently owned by St. Vincent de Paul, its intended developer.

The Smith Hall Studios design is modeled off a prototype showcased at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., although Austin said many of the prototype’s luxury features had been stripped down for the sake of cost-efficiency.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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