Zelma Lacey House to Transition Away from Assisted Living Model

Many residents and families of residents at the Zelma Lacey House were shocked last week to find out in a family meeting that the long-time assisted living home on West School Street would transition from a licensed assisted living to a 100 percent affordable senior rental community – noting that operating losses and high vacancies have pushed them to the new model.

In a fact sheet provided by families to the paper, and confirmed by ownership in an interview this week, the parent company Peabody Properties would make the transition in 2022 or 2023 and go from 66 units of assisted living to 48 units of affordable senior rentals – eliminating the license for assisted living and the in-house wrap-around services that come with that. Peabody Properties would still be the property manager, but the new owner was identified as Affordable Housing and Services Collaborative, Inc. – a non-profit that has specialized in such senior housing for about 20 years and there would be continued coordination of services to residents.

The units would be full-size apartments with kitchens and complete construction updates, resulting in nine studios, 38 one-bedrooms, and one two bedroom unit. The fact sheet indicated that those who wished to stay on after the change would be accommodated, but the services now offered would be discontinued, though they committed to working with families to find third-party providers who could continue necessary services.

The main driver for the change was indicated to be financial, and that the assisted living model developed in the 1990s has become obsolete and not preferable nowadays by many older adults.

“The current assisted living community is not financially feasible, high vacancies and resident turnover and high operating costs have created operating deficits of approximately $4 million over the last four years,” indicated the fact sheet, which was confirmed by Peabody management.

No one would be displaced, but if they were to stay on, they would have to move within the property at no cost while their units were being re-constructed. Rent calculations would not increase as a result of the change, and the property has fewer than 48 residents now so no one would be forced out. Peabody indicated it had stopped accepting applications for vacant apartments in order to make sure the step-down from 66 to 48 didn’t require displacement.

Doreen Bushashia, president of Peabody Residential Services, said they are particularly excited about increasing the affordability – which goes from 50 percent to 100 percent – and includes coordinated services tailored to each resident’s needs.

“We are excited about this project because it will go from 50 percent affordability to 100 percent affordability,” she said. “We are particularly excited about that commitment to affordability with coordinated services offered as well. There is also a commitment to no displacement. There are only about 42 residents there now…We understand the need and run it with our other sites and know it works well for folks. We’re really excited about more affordable housing with service coordination embedded with it.”

She said they would be employing a service coordinator with experience in such things to figure out the right providers and needs for each resident. She said they already have great relationships with third-party providers and would lean on that experience to serve those in the new model at Zelma.

Some in the community, however, are skeptical and want to know more.

Paula Kirk said her mother lived there for the last two years of her life, passing away not too long ago. Many of her mother’s friends at the Zelma and the children of those residents reached out to her to figure out what they should do. She said it felt like a violation of a pact between the facility and the families – with many of the residents not likely to be able to thrive as they do without intense assistant services.

“It’s the one place in Town our elderly could go to be in an assisted living situation,” she said. “My mom thrived there and the residents all thrive there now. We have plenty of affordable elderly housing. The assisted living is what was critical…It’s the community they need. It was wonderful for them and I wonder how this is going to work. It’s just really scary, concerning and sad. Zelma Lacey fought for that for people in this Town.”

She also cited a group of mentally challenged residents that live in the Zelma, and wondered what would happen to them when the changes occur.

State Rep. Dan Ryan said there is a lot of history brought back in this discussion from the 1990s regarding Zelma Lacey and her fight for an assisted living. He said it was one woman’s dream for a long time, and along with Sr. Anne Rita, Beverly Gibbons, and Ann Marino, they were able to make it a reality. He said maybe it’s time the Town’s leaders and the City try to continue that dream somehow if these changes do take place.

“They relentlessly built support while sometimes getting nothing but lip service,” said Ryan. “Zelma waved her cowbell at elected officials each Parade Day until people realized she was not going away. I was living in Washington, D.C., when the dream became a reality and then a plan. Peter Looney and Judy Evers working with the City, Gregg Nolan in Congressman Capuano’s office, Leslie Smith in Councilor Scapicchio’s office and Kevin O’Halloran helped narrow down a site and put the wheels in motion. Nostalgia aside, I think the most important legacy we can leave for Zelma is an affordable facility that allows Charlestown elders to age in place with dignity. If an assisted living model is no longer feasible, we as a community, are best served by working with the Zelma Lacey House to come up with a plan that protects current residents through the transition while developing a facility that most closely meets Zelma’s vision.” 

Councilor Lydia Edwards said she has also heard from a lot of families and concerned residents of the Town. She said much of the information so far is preliminary and more has to be found out, but she said it is frustrating as it’s a decision made by the company and the community has little room to give input. She agreed that maybe the next step is figuring out a way to provide similar housing in a different place.

“This was a bridge that allowed elders to live in community,” she said. “The question for many will be how do we make sure we don’t lose that bridge…The frustrating thing is it’s not a decision of the City. I thought there would be more checks in the City’s zoning…We need to make sure we can figure out how to continue the senior services and care. I’ll be talking with the developer about that because many family members don’t have the financial capabilities or time to do that. They agreed to have their parents go there in good faith and feel that now there is no other option.”

Another meeting for residents and family members is scheduled for the upcoming weeks with more information, according to the fact sheet. Bushashia said there would be no hasty decisions and they would be going through a process with the state.

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