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Newton City Council approves $4.2 million grant toward renovating Coleman House

A couple exit Coleman House, a senior living community in Oak Hill. DANIEL KOOL
A couple exited Coleman House, a senior living community in Oak Hill.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY DANIEL KOOL

The Newton City Council approved over $4.2 million in preservation funding for the Coleman House senior living community at its March 15 meeting – the second largest grant from the Community Preservation Act assigned to an affordable housing project.

The funds will go toward a $30.5 million project to renovate and upgrade the 146-unit complex located on the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center campus in Oak Hill.

Coleman House residency is restricted to households at or below half of Newton’s area median income, which amounts to $44,800 for single residents and $51,200 for couples.

Newton’s limited options for government-funded senior housing struggle to keep up with local need, said Lizbeth Heyer, chief of real estate and innovation at 2Life. In an email, she wrote that the average wait time for a Coleman House apartment is six and a half years.

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“The economics of aging is pretty bleak,” Heyer said. “And it’s extremely bleak in Massachusetts.”

Over 63 percent of single seniors in Boston, Cambridge, and Newton face economic insecurity, according to a March study by the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Elder Index. Over 19 percent live below the poverty line.

For Massachusetts renters over 65, the cost of fulfilling basic needs is $36,396 per year, according to the Elder Index. That figure is more than $10,000 higher than the national average.

The median income among residents of Coleman House is $12,000, according to Heyer.

The Community Preservation Committee unanimously recommended the project in January. In the latest move the Land Use Committee voted 7-0 and the Finance Committee 4-0, with one member not voting, to approve.

The Community Preservation Act is a state law allowing local governments to levy a surcharge on property taxes – an additional 1 percent in Newton – to fund affordable housing, historic preservation, and open and recreation spaces.

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Ward 7 Councilor Rebecca Grossman, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the Coleman House project is “absolutely what the Community Preservation Act is for.”

“It speaks right to the heart of our values in the City of Newton, in preserving affordable housing opportunities, especially for our older adult community — some of the most vulnerable residents among us,” Grossman said in an interview.

Grossman said the $4.2 million price tag, while higher than many CPA projects, represents only a portion of the project’s total cost, which is over $30 million.

2Life Communities, the Brighton-based nonprofit that owns and operates the facility among others in the region, will cover $24.8 million. The rest will come from a range of public funding pools, including the Community Preservation Act.

Grossman said 2Life, which also operates Golda Meir House in Auburndale, has done “terrific” work in the past.

Over the two-year renovation, Coleman House’s 146 affordable units will be reconfigured to better address the unique needs of aging residents, according to Heyer.

“Those apartments have to have the kind of physical spaces that can be adapted to support people’s changing physical needs as they age,” Heyer said.

Modifications will include expanded bathrooms with reinforced walls that can ease the installation of grab-bars and removable kitchen cabinets to accommodate residents in wheelchairs and walkers, Heyer said.

She said additional design considerations — like room lighting and wall color — can be tailored to the needs of individuals with limited vision and dementia.

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“In thinking about a unit layout, you really want to signal to someone who’s got dementia that they’re moving from one room to another room,” Heyer said. “So the idea of a big open kitchen that’s open to a living space, it’s very open and flexible, but it can be really confusing for someone who has a little bit of dementia.”

Community Preservation Act funds have been specifically allocated to preserving and upgrading building-wide infrastructure, some of which needs a “complete overhaul,” Heyer said.

Major preservation efforts include installing a new roof, repairing damaged masonry, and installing new, more sustainable plumbing and heating systems, according to the Community Preservation Committee’s recommendation.

Newton aims to allocate about 35 percent of its Community Preservation Act grant money annually to the preservation and development of affordable housing.

But Ward 8 Councilor Richard Lipof, chair of the Land Use Committee, said the high cost of land in Newton makes it difficult to create truly affordable units.

“We’ve actually struggled in the city [to] find enough projects to spend all of our CPA money,” Lipof said in an interview, “which is funny because you would think people would be lining up left and right.”

Heyer said the area’s high cost of living often pushes seniors into Medicaid-funded nursing homes — “housing of last resort.”

“I don’t know anybody that says, ‘My dream is to live in a nursing home,’” she said.

Heyer said 2Life’s ability to provide seniors with affordable housing is only possible through the help of public programs such as the Community Preservation Act.

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“You can really provide high quality and really beneficial affordable housing for folks through engagement with government programs like this that make a real difference,” Heyer said. “Hopefully it also becomes an example of what others can do.”

Daniel Kool can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.