Business of Aging

After Eight-year Struggle, Hillside Residence Becomes Reality

The Dream and the Journey

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

Officials take up ceremonial shovels during the groundbreaking for Hillside Residence on May 18.

During their long and sometimes frustrating quest to secure funding for what would eventually be Hillside Residence, the Sisters of Providence never stopped believing the project’s model — blending healthcare and affordable senior housing — was worth fighting for. Now that the development is under way, they are even firmer in that conviction.

As she talked about the long and persistently frustrating quest to secure funding for the project that would come to be called Hillside Residence, Sister Kathleen Popko summed things up by recalling sentiments she expressed at the time — words that blended diplomacy, poignancy, and even a little sarcasm.

“I would tell people, ‘though our progress is slow … I’m making a lot of friends locally, regionally, and nationally,’” she recalled, with a phrase that hinted broadly at how many doors, in a proverbial sense, were knocked on by the Sisters of Providence, which Popko leads as president, as they sought to take a dream off the drawing board.

And also at how important it was to be making those friends.

Indeed, while making all those introductions, Sr. Popko and the other Sisters of Providence were gaining even more resolve as well. And it stemmed from the firm conviction that their unique model for Hillside Residence — the intersection of healthcare and affordable elder housing, if you will — was worth fighting for.

And fight they did, for the better part of eight years, a struggle that was ultimately successful and celebrated, as much as the project itself was, at an elabotate groundbreaking ceremony on May 18.

Fittingly, Sr. Popko, during her turn at the podium that morning, borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi to convey what it took to make that moment a reality.

“The journey is essential to the dream,” she said, invoking St. Francis’s famous quote. “With hindsight, I can see the truth and wisdom in that statement. Our eight-year journey to this moment expanded and sharpened our vision, tested our determination, enlarged our circle of friends, and committed supporters to this initiative. Let us work now to realize the dream.”

That dream, as noted, is to bring innovative, health-integrated, affordable elder housing to a region, and a city (West Springfield) where there is an acknowledged need for it, said Popko.

Elaborating, she said Hillside Residence, a demonstration project, will create 36 affordable rental units to frail elders, who will receive healthcare services from the Mercy LIFE PACE program (program for all-inclusive care for the elderly). Both programs are situated on the same 27-acre campus that was formerly home to Brightside for Families and Children.

And the expectation is that this $10 million project will demonstrate that this is an effective model for bringing needed services to what has historically been an underserved segment of the population, she told BusinessWest, adding that there have attempts to create affordable senior housing, but not in the same, holistic environment that Hillside Residence will create.

“This is innovative in that it will keep frail elders independent,” she explained. “They’ll live in an independent-living facility, but they’ll be supported in a way, on the same campus, that they can access a tremendous array of services and at the same time go home and live independently.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at both the dream and the journey that made Hillside Residence a reality — and why both are worth celebrating.

The Big Picture

When Brightside’s closing was announced in 2009, it left the Sisters of Providence with what amounted to a 27-acre canvas that could be filled in any number of ways, said Sr. Popko.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

An architect’s rendering of Hillside Residence.

What made the most sense, she said, was to use the land and existing buildings, part of what’s known collectively as the Hillside at Providence, to help create a broad array of senior-living and senior-care facilities that would complement each other and meet recognized needs within the community.

This was a process that actually started with the conversion of the former Sisters of Providence Mother House into an independent-living and retirement community known as Providence Place in 1999, and it continued with the creation of Mary’s Meadow at Providence, a complex on the Providence Place campus comprised of 10-person houses designed to give elders a place to live in comfort equal to that of a private home. This was the first ‘small-home’ facility, as they have come to be called, in the Bay State.

The process of filling in the canvas at Brightside was accelerated with the creation of Mercy LIFE, a PACE program operated by Mercy Medical Center that provides tightly coordinated care and support designed to help seniors continue to live safely at home and avoid moving into a nursing home, she said.

The 25,000-square-foot facility, located within what was the main administration building for Brightside, includes everything from a medical clinic to a rehab gym to gathering places.

Meanwhile, the remainder of that 78,000-square-foot administration building has been devoted to reuses ranging from hospice care to a home for elder-focused programs administered by the Center for Human Development.

What emerged as a missing piece in the puzzle — and the next dream for the Sisters of Providence — was an affordable senior-living facility, one where the residents could take full advantage of the many programs and services at Mercy LIFE.

Talks for such a facility — and thus that ‘journey’ Sr. Popko described — began in 2011, she said, adding that it took the better of eight years (and work with four different mayors of West Springfield) to secure everything from the proper zoning to the needed funding.

And the latter part of the equation became more difficult when, in 2012, HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ceased funding for so-called ‘Section 202’ projects, those aimed at expanding the supply of affordable housing with supportive services for the elderly.

“So we had to take a step back and try to look for alternative sources of funding,” said Sr. Popko. “That included private sources and looking at federal grants and so forth.

“And they really weren’t forthcoming at the time,” she went on. “We visited many legislators and congressmen, and we brought in experts to come in and talk about some other concepts we were thinking about. We had people come out here, we visited state offices … we talked to so many people.”

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner

State Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner addresses those assembled at the May 18 groundbreaking for Hillside Residence.

Like she said, progress was slow, but she and others were making acquaintances.

“Everybody was very encouraging — they kept saying, ‘go ahead, yes, do this,’” she recalled, adding that the words of encouragement were not backed up with checks.

But the sisters pressed on. They succeeded in getting the property rezoned, and eventually started making progress on funding, thanks in part to a timely visit to Mary’s Meadow by state Elder Affairs Secretary Alice Bonner in April 2016.

“I said, ‘I just need minutes of your time,’” Sr. Popko recalled, adding that she used it to give the secretary a brief overview of the Hillside Residence project and hand her a concept paper of the proposal.

Bonner put the paper in her backpack, but eventually took it out, read it, and became sufficiently intrigued to call Sr. Popko and arrange a meeting to discuss the matter.

“We brainstormed about what could happen,” she recalled, “and also about how we could remove the silos between housing and health services and bring the two closer together.”

Eventually, the sisters were able to cobble funds together for a number of state and federal sources, including the Housing Stabilization Fund, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Housing Innovation Fund program, and the Mass. Rental Voucher Program. Also, private funding was provided by the Sisters of Providence and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and the West Springfield Community Preservation Committee also chipped in toward the price tag, currently pegged at $9.65 million.

The project will focus on serving individuals who are 62 and older, with incomes at 50% of the area median income (AMI) or lower, and whose healthcare needs and housing instability can be optimally addressed by the program, said Sr. Popko, adding that, because the project has secured commitment of state rental subsidies, Hillside Residence participants’ housing costs will be capped at 30% of their income.

And while meeting an immediate need for those twin services — housing and healthcare — the project will be adding to the base of research on the efficiency and effectiveness of the integration of PACE and affordable elder housing.

“This data will assist policy makers, housing developers and managers, and healthcare providers better understand the benefits and operational challenges of an integrated PACE housing model,” said Sr. Popko.

The Next Chapter

As she talked about Hillside Residence, Sr. Popko noted that there is still more of the former Brightside canvas to be filled in.

Indeed, there are several cottages on the property that are roughly 9,000 square feet in size and could be transformed into more housing for the elderly.

“We could have another 50 units on this site, but it will be even more difficult to attain funding for that,” she said, adding that those cottages comprise what would be phase 3 of the work at the Hillside at Providence and the proverbial ‘next dream.’

As for the one currently coming to fruition, she said, again, that St. Francis of Assisi was right.

“Our journey of eight years was probably essential for realizing this dream,” she said in conclusion. “Because we’ve brought together people from the state level, we’ve brought together funders, legislators, and people within the community of West Springfield, to a point where they all want this to happen. That’s what has brought us to this moment.”

That, and a firm determination never to let the dream die.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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