Residents worry as city mulls future of Geneva Village

Anxieties abound as low-income seniors await decision on aging housing complex

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/7/21

Dolores Rothmeyer tries to stay focused on the present. Rothmeyer, 88, has lived for 12 years at Geneva Village, an age- and rent-restricted housing complex owned by the City of Littleton, right next …

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Residents worry as city mulls future of Geneva Village

Anxieties abound as low-income seniors await decision on aging housing complex

Posted

Dolores Rothmeyer tries to stay focused on the present.

Rothmeyer, 88, has lived for 12 years at Geneva Village, an age- and rent-restricted housing complex owned by the City of Littleton, right next to city hall.

In the fall of 2019, notes appeared on residents' doors announcing the city would stop filling vacancies in the aging 28-unit complex “pending further decisions.”

A year and a half later, those decisions have yet to materialize, leaving residents in limbo. Discussions among city officials in recent years have ranged from raising rents to selling the site.

Meanwhile, vacancies are increasing. City officials say there are four empty units, but residents say the number is seven.

Rothmeyer, a retired waitress who spent years on a waiting list for her unit, said living at Geneva Village feels like her best chance to stay near her daughter and grandson, who help her with chores and shopping. Her only income is Social Security, out of which she pays $390 a month for her one-bedroom apartment.

Outside Geneva Village, the picture looks bleak around the area. Waiting lists for low-income housing stretch out for years, and market rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Littleton now tops $1,300 a month.

“I try not to think about what could happen,” Rothmeyer said. “I want to stay calm so I don't have a breakdown.”

Looking into the future

City officials say they're eager to come to a decision, but it will take more time.

“We tried to identify opportunities to discuss it last year, but COVID hit, and our priorities changed,” said City Manager Mark Relph. “I don't want to get into possible scenarios. We have people who live there and deserve certainty, and I don't want to speculate and cause concern. Right now, it's status quo.”

City staff are working on a comprehensive analysis of the Geneva Village property, with plans to present it to city council early next year, said Public Works Director Keith Reester.

Reester's department has hired a remediation contractor and a renovation contractor to compile research on what both day-to-day and long-term maintenance of the property would require.

“Most of the units haven't been touched in decades, and based on their age will inherently have asbestos and lead paint,” Reester said. “There are electrical and plumbing issues. Nothing has been done to keep up the pavement or parking lots.”

A gas leak several years ago meant that a central gas line had to be immediately replaced, leaving staff concerned about other hidden problems.

“All this needs to be taken into consideration as we look into the future,” Reester said.

Ownership background

The City of Littleton sort of stumbled into running Geneva Village.

Built in 1964, the complex was designed by Midcentury Modern architect Eugene Sternberg, who also left his mark on Littleton with Bemis Library, Heritage High School and Arapahoe Community College's main building. Geneva Village was originally an annex to Geneva Lodge, a convalescent home for hotel and restaurant workers.

The city bought the property and several adjoining acres in 1975 to build a new city hall. The convalescent home was closed, and management of Geneva Village was handed over to the Littleton Housing Authority, now called South Metro Housing Options or SMHO.

SMHO handled the property for many years as it grew its roster of affordable housing around the city, but pulled out of the Geneva Village arrangement in 2019.

Part of the problem was the unusual funding model: Though Geneva Village is restricted to those 55 or older and serves people with low incomes, the apartment complex technically has no income requirements, which puts it at odds with SMHO's mandate.

Further, SMHO told city council the facility's rents, which range from $300 a month for a studio to $450 for a two-bedroom, were so low the agency couldn't guarantee it could afford to comply with their legal mandate to provide “safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations.” The city handed maintenance of the complex over to a contractor in 2019.

Efforts to raise rents at the complex stalled out in city council twice in recent years, in the face of opposition from residents and advocates.

“What's our goal here?” Relph said. “Do we need to be in the business of direct ownership of affordable housing, or is there something else that can be done? Are the rents we're charging reasonable? They're not covering costs — the community is subsidizing this.”

However, part of the problem stems from years when the renters of Geneva Village subsidized the city.

Funding challenges

Geneva Village is funded through an enterprise fund, a separate segment of the city budget. The vast majority of the fund's revenues come from rent payments, city documents show.

The fund had more than $630,000 in cash at the beginning of 2009, according to city budgets, but city council made several transfers from Geneva Village into the general fund between 2009 and 2013 as the Great Recession wreaked havoc on city finances, eventually withdrawing a total of $630,220.

Some of the money made its way back. Council moved $75,000 into the fund in 2016, $50,000 in 2020, and plans for another $50,000 in 2021, for a total of $175,000 — still $455,220 shy of the total amount withdrawn over the years to backfill the general fund. The city maintains a reserve in the Geneva Village fund of roughly $98,000.

Transfers between city funds are not uncommon, Relph said, calling the Geneva Village fund transfers part of efforts "to stop far bigger problems at the time."

Still, expenditures have exceeded revenues for several years. Rental income is beginning to dwindle as units go vacant and are left unfilled, and maintenance costs are adding up. The fund took in $109,090 in rent in 2020, while expenditures ran to more than $118,000.

Relph said city council will likely take the city's entire financial picture into account. The city faces critical shortages in its capital projects fund, with a list of increasingly dire infrastructure needs far exceeding projected revenues. Five-year projections in the city's general fund predict dwindling reserves.

Meanwhile, Geneva Village falls under the first major change of the city's forthcoming Unified Land Use Code: an overhaul of the downtown neighborhood's zoning, which placed the property within the Downtown Mixed Use zone, allowing for multifamily development with a maximum height of three stories.

The prior zoning also allowed multifamily development, though advocates told council last December they wished the new zoning offered greater protections for Geneva Village.

The neighborhood surrounding Geneva Village has seen a total upheaval in recent years, with bungalows replaced by towering condo and apartment complexes as land and housing prices skyrocket.

City council is poised to take up discussions about affordable housing policy in coming months, Relph said, and Geneva Village will likely factor in.

'An umbrella in case it rains'

Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes said while the decision on what to do with Geneva Village will eventually fall to city council, it's too soon to make any predictions.

“There are a multitude of options there,” Valdes said. “Do nothing? Improve it? Something else? But we're not necessarily supposed to be landlords.”

Valdes said while council waits for reports from city staff, Geneva Village residents should consider their options.

“If my folks lived there, I'd tell them to get their names on the Section 8 (housing voucher) waiting list,” he said. “That's just being prudent. There's no sense in saying you don't know what your future is going to be if you're not going to do anything about it. It's like taking an umbrella in case it rains.”

That's not a bad idea, said Linda Haley, who heads Arapahoe County's affordable housing and senior programs.

“Those lists are long and there aren't a lot of places to go,” Haley said. “We're all human. If someone there is 85, they may just hope they never have to deal with it, but the sooner they get on a list, the better.”

Haley said she has offered to partner with Littleton to plan for the residents' futures, but has so far been told to wait while the city sorts things out. She hopes if the city makes a decision that displaces residents, they do so with a long enough lead time to ensure soft landings.

SMHO representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

Around the complex, residents say they're trying to live with the anxiety. Some said they have stopped making requests to maintenance, fearing that asking for help will hasten a bad outcome for the complex.

Margaret Clark, 92, has lived in Geneva Village since 1990 and hopes to live out her days there.

“We're just in suspense,” she said. “We don't know whether to start filling boxes.”

As Clark spoke on her front stoop, a neighbor came by with news: she had seen a city employee walking through the complex, taking notes on a clipboard.

“I asked if she needed help,” the neighbor reported to Clark. “She said 'No thanks,' and headed back toward city hall. I don't know what she was doing.”

Those sort of minor interactions have taken on a heavy weight for anxious residents, Clark said.

“It's a difficult, frustrating way to live,” she said.

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