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Senior project – Retirees renovate motel into housing for older Americans

“If we were 40 years old, we wouldn’t touch this project with a 10-foot pole,” Don Levitz of Grass Valley said last week.

But Levitz, 76, and his business partner, Matt Brown, 67, aren’t 40 any more, so they’ve come out of retirement to promote an innovative approach to increasing the stock of badly needed senior housing.

At the same time, they’ve found a new use for rundown motels throughout the Central Valley that have been bypassed by Interstate 5 and changing tastes.



Brown, who lives in San Jose, said the idea came to him after reading several articles about the housing problems of seniors. The concept is simple:

Purchase serviceable motels that have seen their better days. Use tax credits, grants and other available funding to buy the complexes, and convert them into one-bedroom apartments at rents most seniors can afford.




Levitz sees their new venture as a way to provide good, affordable housing to the growing portion of the senior population that can’t afford it. “We need to solve this quiet crisis,” he said. “We’re doing the nuts and bolts of finding a place for these people to live.”

The partners ran their own development company from 1978 to 1995, building houses and condos and developing commercial properties in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Alameda counties. Levitz thought he retired when he moved to Grass Valley in 1996. Then he got a call from Brown in October 2002.

Levitz said rehabilitating existing structures is cheaper than building from the ground up, and it can be done quickly. “Building from the ground up is very time-consuming, and the costs are high,” he said. “If you take over an old motel, you can get started as soon as the city gives you your OKs and permits.”

While there are plenty of old motels along Highways 99 and 101 that are candidates for the program, the developers are seeking complexes with at least 100 units that are convenient to services seniors need.

They looked at 50 motels before identifying their first project in Salinas, where they are partnering with Community Housing Improvement Systems and Affordable Housing Co. to turn a 173-unit Travelodge into 138 one-bedroom apartments.

The Travelodge is being purchased for $4,555,000, and another $5 million to $7 million will be spent on rehabbing the complex. The apartments will be designed for seniors and the complex will include a laundry room, community room, and spa and swimming pool.

Apartments are expected to rent for $400 to $600 a month to qualified low-income seniors when the work is completed in 2006.

B&L Development Co. has formed a general partnership with CHISPA and will oversee the design and construction work. CHISPA is handling financing and regulatory issues and will take title to the property when the work is completed.

David Cooke, director of real estate development for CHISPA, called the project a “win-win situation” for Salinas’ senior community.

“This is something that’s a little bit different for us,” he said last week. “We really like the concept because it upgrades a property that can use it while providing badly needed senior housing. We liked the proposal because it’s a good fit for us.”

Brown and Levitz are now zeroing in on a motel complex in Bakersfield, and they said they’ve received positive responses from mayors of several cities they’ve contacted, something Brown finds refreshing.

“In development, you usually have endless hassles with city officials,” he said. “But we’ve been well-received everywhere. It’s a nice change.”

Levitz and Brown don’t plan to keep doing this forever (Levitz has had several health problems in recent years), but they want to create enough momentum so that others will champion the concept in the future.

Can the same thing be done in western Nevada County? “You can do it on a smaller scale, but there aren’t many candidates here,” Levitz said. “Basically, you can rehabilitate anything.”

An account for nonprofit Guardian Affordable Senior Housing has been established at Citizens Bank of Nevada County for contributions that will be used as seed money for future developments.

Housing crisis coming

The senior population in the United States is expected to grow from today’s 35 million to 53 million in 2020, and the country is ill-prepared to house them, according to a federal commission’s report to Congress in 2002.

Among other things, the Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Facility Needs for Seniors in the 21st Century found that:

– Current production of affordable housing does not begin to meet demand.

– Subsidized rental units are being lost due to expiring Section 8 programs.

– There are nearly six times as many seniors with unmet housing needs as are currently being served by rent-assisted housing.

“A housing crisis is on the horizon, and more housing units must be created in response,” the commission wrote.

Read the full report is available at http://www.seniorscommission.gov on the Web.


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