How Underused Convents Become Senior Affordable Housing

The New Jersey non-profit Build with Purpose transfers underused real estate and finances affordable housing projects for seniors, veterans and others.

METUCHEN, N.J. -- Since 2003, the non-profit organization Build with Purpose has focused on underused properties, like vacant convents, and figured out a way to create senior affordable housing opportunities.

According to the organization, it has facilitated more than $150 million in real estate development financing for more than 30 community organizations. The non-profit focuses on other underserved populations as well, such as homeless veterans, and also works to turn warehouses into schools.

Viewed as an affordable housing model, the Senior Residence at St. Peter the Apostle in River Edge, New Jersey, opened in 2013. It's designed to feel like a bed and breakfast with community spaces like decks and sun rooms for residents to enjoy. At about half the cost of assisted living, services and amenities like 24-hour staffing, three home cooked meals per day, utilities, housekeeping, laundry service and programming help the two dozen seniors in residence live fairly independently. However, unlike assisted living, families are involved with care. They are responsible to take their senior family members in residence to doctors appointments. They also contribute to low-budget recreational opportunities, like taking over the residence kitchen one night and cooking their senior family member's favorite meal for all the residents.

Build with Purpose is currently working to convert an Edison, N.J. convent, The Senior Residence at St. Matthew's, which is expected to open in early 2017. According to Brian Keenan,  president, the non-profit is currently working to secure site control of two other convents it will be converting to affordable senior housing.

Nationally, there is a great need for affordable senior housing, particularly with poor seniors who tend to revolve through hospitals as a way to stay housed, Keenan says. Build with Purpose has received many inquiries, in particular from California, to find out if the organization's methodology is replicable. They use a boarding house model and new Medicaid provisions to make affordable senior housing a reality.

"In New Jersey we have very good rooming and boarding laws and licensing rules," says Keenan. Boarding houses have a poor reputation, "but the reality is they do provide alternative housing to a large segment of the population," he adds.

In the Northeast, there are a number of religious-owned properties that lay vacant. Build with Purpose is able to leverage favorable long-term leases that bring the price down. And because the layouts are already like dorms, the capital construction costs are also less. What feels even better about deals like the convent at St. Peter the Apostle is "we're using it for the same people they were intended for."

Other properties in other areas of the country could also work, such as motels. They already have large rooms with bathrooms, Keenan points out.

Build with Purpose is currently working with The Corporation for Supportive Housing to look at replicating the solution nationally.

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