Bittersweet Home

Seniors face a tough transition into their brand-new apartments

At age 68, Vern Berry fills his mornings by hauling food boxes to charities around town. Much of the rest of his time is spent at Sentinel Plaza, a recently finished $27 million, 143-unit, federally subsidized senior-housing complex on Congress Street west of Interstate10.

But even the robust Berry isn't immune to a tumble, particularly when shoddy construction hikes the odds in this new place he calls home. There's the support bar in his shower that easily pops loose from the wall. And there are drawers that tumble off cheap plastic tracks whenever they're pulled open.

As a former real-estate broker, Berry knows the telltale signs of corner-cutting: "When you look around, the builder was saving money in a lot of ways," he says. "They knew what they were doing."

All of which is far less than Sentinel Plaza's elderly residents expected when they recently moved here en masse from the aging Armory Park Apartments at 12th Street and Fifth Avenue.

They have found Sentinel lacking the basic accoutrements of old age, such as stable gripping bars, raised toilet seats and safe showers. Common rooms all require a key to enter, and apartment doors lock automatically. The low-income residents who forget their keys inside are required to call a locksmith.

Many were also surprised to learn that the staff at Sentinel enjoys bankers' hours: On evenings and weekends, residents are on their own.

"That's a real concern in emergencies," Berry says. "Most of these folks can't afford those emergency alarm buttons."

Steven Greenbaum is president of the Chicago-based Senior Housing Group, which built and owns Sentinel Plaza. He dismisses numerous concerns as "minor glitches."

"In the grand scheme of things," Greenbaum says, "they are wrinkles that will get ironed out over time. ... My feedback is that the vast majority of residents are thrilled with their apartments, thrilled with the building, happy to be settled in, and extremely grateful that they now have a much-nicer place to call home."

Considering his company owns nearly 20 federally subsidized senior-housing properties across the country—including facilities such as Sentinel that it has built or rehabbed with public tax credits—one would hope that such "wrinkles" had been smoothed out long ago. But several people interviewed by the Tucson Weekly, including those with family members at Sentinel Plaza, report a host of ongoing problems.

Perhaps the first victim of this move was simple camaraderie. For years, these residents had lived next door to the Armory Park Senior Center, which serves as a big, friendly living room for elderly folks who often have few surviving friends or relatives. To reach the center now, they must board a shuttle or catch a ride with volunteers.

When residents tried to revive their sense of community at Sentinel by chewing the fat over coffee, the kitchen with the coffeemaker was locked down.

This only added to a sense among some residents that they'd been hoodwinked. "The first shock was that no one was told that there would be no staff at nights or on weekends," says the daughter of one resident, who asked not to be named, to protect her mother from repercussions. "My mom and I just looked at each other. We couldn't believe it. And then they locked down the kitchen."

Although site manager Rick Mucklow says access to the kitchen coffeemaker is being negotiated, other common areas, such as the library, exercise and "multipurpose" rooms, remain locked around the clock. While residents have keys to these areas, some report a fortified ambience that leaves them cold.

Then there was the move itself. Greenbaum's company hired Bekins Moving Solutions to transport residents' belongings, and in some cases even help them pack. Many longtime Armory Park dwellers had amassed quite a personal inventory, and the whole operation "was a challenge," says Bob Watson, Bekins' general manager. "With some of them, we had to start at the door of their apartments and work our way in. And most of them didn't want to move, even when we told them they were going to these beautiful new apartments."

But Bekins' contract did not obligate the company to completely unpack those belongings at Sentinel Plaza. And that left lots of disabled folks overwhelmed by stacks of boxes.

In a panic, Armory Park Senior Center officials called for help. Many who volunteered later described a scene of utter chaos. "Some very disturbing stuff," one wrote in an email to the Weekly. "Can't believe this is federally funded, and the management/builders are thinking this was a great idea."

Making things worse, an elevator at Sentinel was out of commission during several days of the move.

Greenbaum says he helped coordinate the volunteers, and paid Bekins to help people pack and unpack if they wanted. "But mostly volunteers helped with unpacking. The promise we really made to residents was that we would provide assistance to those who needed it. And that's what we did, between the combination of the movers and the volunteers."

But those volunteers say the owner had little input in what devolved into an exhaustive rescue effort. "I clearly heard Greenbaum say—and a lot of other people clearly heard him say—'We will help you unpack, too,'" Vern Berry recalls. "But if the volunteer crew had not been here, a lot of these people would still be staring at their full boxes."

Perhaps all could be forgiven, if not for the fact that Greenbaum's company stands to make a lot of money from Sentinel Plaza and the pending sale of the Armory Park Apartments.

With help from the city of Tucson, Senior Housing won an annual allotment of $2.85 million in low-income, federal-housing tax credits for the next 10 years at Sentinel. The company then used those credits, awarded by the Arizona Department of Housing, to entice investors for its $27 million project. Wells Fargo ultimately helped bankroll the effort.

Greenbaum says he had initially considered simply renovating the decrepit Armory Park Apartments, but the idea was scrapped when potential investors and state officials balked.

"There's no perfect solution," he told me in an earlier interview, "when you have a building that's 40 years old and in need of significant capital to save it, and you have expiring affordability commitments."

But apparently those apartments still have some life in them, now that the old folks are out of the way: Tucson-based Peach Properties recently announced plans to buy Armory from Greenbaum's company, and to market the apartments as upscale downtown studios after a complete renovation.