With Vida Senior Residences, abuelitos get a new lease on their golden years

January 4, 2012

Luz Onofre has lived in the District since 1963, but she struggles to pay the below-market rent of $900 a month for her Mount Pleasant apartment.

“Rent is so expensive nowadays, and the pension I get is not enough,” the retired teacher said.

Born in Peru, Onofre, 72, hopes to land one of 36 furnished studio apartments at the new Vida Senior Residences at Brightwood on Missouri Avenue NW, where officials are holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

The complex, for residents 55 and older, is an effort to address the demand for affordable housing among the District’s Latino senior population, said officials with Vida Senior Centers in Adams Morgan, which is developing the project. The apartments are open to everyone, however, and rents will range from $286 to $851 a month, based on income. Applicants also have to meet other criteria, such as no criminal record, officials said.

Vida, formerly the Educational Organization for United Latin Americans, has worked with Hispanics in the District since 1969. In its Calvert Street location, Vida serves more than 700 senior citizens annually, 95 percent of them Hispanic, official said.

Onofre said she found a family in the center after being treated for cancer six years ago.

“I am alone. I don’t have children or a husband,” she said. “I would really love to live there.”

Onofre said an apartment in the new building would also mean a safe and active place to grow old.

“I love to dance, and at Vida we have dance classes three times a week,” said Onofre, who suffers from high blood pressure and has lymphoma checkups every six months. “That keeps me going despite some of my health issues.”

The apartments will also offer a senior center and a community garden.

“With the housing boom in Washington, a lot of the seniors were being priced out of the market,” said Robert Solorzano, a consultant who serves as president of Vida’s board of directors. “Of course [the problem] is a lot bigger than our current housing project, but at least we were starting to address the issue.”

The five-story building in Ward 4 is an expansion for Vida to an area that has drawn many Hispanic residents. Many Latinos in the past decade moved out of gentrifying Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan to the suburbs or more affordable places in the upper Georgia Avenue area, said Angel Luis Irene, Vida’s executive director. That transition can be a challenge for the elderly who might be more dependent on public transportation, he said.

The portion of the District’s population that is 60 and older reached nearly 100,000 in the 2010 Census, according to the D.C. Office on Aging. A small portion, 4,365 or 4.3 percent, are Hispanic, according to their statistics based on the census.

Irene said many Hispanic seniors are in the country alone, live in poverty and have health problems such as diabetes. Vida is the only senior center in the area that specializes in services to this population, Irene said.

He said one of the biggest challenges Vida sees in its clients is the need for affordable housing. He said he hopes the $8.7 million project, which was financed with federal stimulus funding through programs through the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and a $1.3 million bank loan, will be the first of similar projects to help this population find low-income housing.

The organization’s strategic plan envisions building one more residential community in the District, one in Maryland and one in Virginia, Irene said. As the Hispanic population grows (it now numbers more than 1 million people in the District, Maryland and Virginia, according to the 2010 Census), the need for affordable housing for Hispanic seniors will continue to grow, he said.

Casilda Luna, a native of the Dominican Republic who came to the District more than 40 years ago and worked to establish the first Vida center in the ’70s, said she hopes the complex will help alleviate overcrowding at the Adams Morgan center.

“We don’t fit here anymore. The place is too small,” said Luna, 85. She said the center provides a cozy environment for elderly Latinos where they can socialize, receive health and nutrition information and dance lessons in their native Spanish.

A private management company is processing applications this month on a first-come, first-served basis. About 300 people havealready applied. The apartments are expected to be leased within six months, and the programs in the community center will start after the building is occupied in the summer, Irene said.

While Luna is happy about the expansion, she said she is also sad because it means the group will be split between the two sites.

“We are like a family. Sometimes many of us don’t want to come to Vida because we feel sick or are in pain, but we come because we feel at home here.”

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Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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