Residents temporarily relocated from their apartments at Stevenson House have moved back into the affordable senior-living community, and the next group is packing up and preparing to leave.
The 140 residents of Stevenson House are experiencing major disruptions this year as their complex on Charleston Road in Palo Alto undergoes significant structural, seismic and cosmetic renovations.
Besides dust, noise and the usual hazards of navigating around a construction site -- sometimes with walkers or wheelchairs -- residents are being relocated, in shifts, for five weeks to furnished units in Mountain View as their individual apartments are renovated.
The $16.3 million construction project (which does not include the $2.2 million needed to temporarily relocate residents) began in fall 2015 and should be completed in spring 2017, said Phyllis Cassel, a former Palo Alto planning commissioner and community volunteer who is completing nine years on the board of Stevenson House. Cassel has overseen the renovation project from its early planning stages.
The construction follows years of planning, including two years' worth of intensive meetings to prepare the tenants.
"We were all nervous -- even me," said resident Judy Lochead, who was among the first of about a dozen residents to be relocated in March to the temporary housing. "For anybody to move, it's unsettling."
Lochead returned May 19 to her renovated Stevenson House studio apartment overlooking Mitchell Park, complete with new hardwood floors, new cabinets and a new kitchenette and bathroom.
"I'm grateful," she said. "They put us up at a very nice place -- bigger than what we're used to -- and they provided everything. It had elevators, a pool and an exercise gym. They brought in people to pack and unpack for us."
Officials of Stevenson House -- which is run by a community board that contracts with a professional management company for staffing -- said they hope positive reports from the early move-out groups like Lochead's will quell the anxieties of those yet to be relocated.
That would include Bhuvan Ramki, who, along with her husband, occupies a one-bedroom apartment at Stevenson House scheduled for renovation in December.
"I think they're doing their best but there's noise, dust -- a big upheaval," Ramki said of the construction project so far. "You can expect that, but it's kind of disturbing, and my allergies have increased a lot.
"It's not only the human beings but also the little birds and squirrels who are upset," she said. "One little one wanted to come into our apartment -- we live on the first floor. I opened the screen door, and something warm and soft came onto my foot.
"So they're all disturbed, but it's for the better," Ramki said. "The project is for our own good. We're going to be safer, and we're going to get new apartments."
With Stevenson House residents ranging in age from 62 to 99 and with varying levels of mobility, "This is not an easy project and to say it is would be a real lie," Cassel said.
Even with the construction mess, the demand for affordable housing in Palo Alto is such that new residents are moving into Stevenson House, and prospective applicants keep calling. Tenants pay approximately 30 percent of their income in rent. To qualify for admission, applicants must show incomes that are at least 50 percent below the median in Santa Clara County.
With significant numbers of Mandarin- and Russian-speaking tenants, Stevenson House provided translators at the many meetings held to prepare residents for the project.
But misunderstandings arose, as when Cassel was describing to residents that the thresholds in their new showers would be "2 inches" high, and the Mandarin translator described them as "2 feet." "I was running the meeting, and it took awhile to realize why people were so upset," she said.
The construction project originated several years ago when the sewer system in the almost 50-year-old complex began to fail, Cassel said. Stevenson House did not have the funds to replace it, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommended a refinancing. Loans and financing for the renovation were made possible by the City of Palo Alto and Stanford University, administered by Santa Clara County, along with a guarantee from the federal housing agency.
Cassel and incoming Stevenson House Board President Sally Mahoney said that many community groups, such as the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs -- and particularly the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto located next door -- have lent major assistance during the project. With the Stevenson House kitchen and dining room under renovation, the church has provided space for lunch and dinner service, as well as community events like movie night.
Once Stevenson House gets its kitchen back, hopefully this fall, Cassel and Mahoney said, the board will seek ongoing subsidies for a hot-meal program, which is not provided by the federal government but which board members view as critical for the social and nutritional well-being of tenants.
Mahoney credited Cassel and others with seeing the project through, despite the difficulties. Had the refinancing not locked in a requirement that Stevenson House remain as low-income housing, the federal mortgage requiring it to continue as low-income housing would have ended this year, she said.
"It's not an easy project," said Mahoney. "But now Palo Alto will have a complex that will serve low-income seniors for the next 50 years."
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