In a major step toward easing the city's shortage of low-cost housing for senior citizens, the City Council has endorsed two plans that may lead to the construction of more than 200 apartment units on the former site of the historic William Penn Hotel in the Uptown Village shopping district.
The two proposals were submitted to the council by the California Yearly Meeting, the parent organization for the state's Quaker churches, and David Isaacs, an Orange County-based developer who is in the process of purchasing the 2.3-acre site, where the stately Penn Hotel stood for 55 years before it was razed in 1981.
Housing Shortage for Elderly
A housing shortage for Whittier's sizable elderly population--especially those living on fixed incomes--prompted both the Quaker group and Isaacs to approach the city about building one-bedroom and "efficiency" or studio apartments for senior citizens on the site.
According to the 1980 Census, nearly 19% of the city's 69,000 residents are over age 60, and city officials say that percentage has grown slightly since then.
"It's a nice area where people have settled and remained," said Joan Mithers of the city's Senior Citizens Center. "People who come to our center have lived here for 20, 30, even 40 years. And the No. 1 complaint is lack of affordable housing. It's serious."
The Quaker group wants to erect a six-story building with 75 units, which would be rented only to low-income senior citizens over 62. The completed complex would be known as William Penn Manor.
To finance construction and the land purchase, the group has applied to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for low-interest federal loans.
If the group receives the loans, it would then purchase from Isaacs about an acre of the parcel, which is two blocks from Whittier College on Philadelphia Street between Washington and Friends avenues.
On the remaining acreage, Isaacs plans to build a three-story complex for elderly residents, with 125 to 190 apartment units, dining facilities and a recreation yard, according to Larry Minasian, assistant city manager and executive director of the Whittier Redevelopment Agency. But only about 20% of the units would be rented to low-income senior citizens.
To encourage Isaacs to push forward with the project, the City Council, acting as the Whittier Housing Authority, voted 4 to 1 on April 16 to sell up to $12 million in tax-free mortgage revenue bonds. Money from the sale of the bonds, which Isaacs requested, would be used to help develop the site, Minasian said.
Councilman Lee Strong opposed authorizing the bond sale, contending the city was "rushing into a deal" with Isaacs without thoroughly examining his background as a builder or reviewing his specific proposal for the Penn Hotel site.
"No question there is a need for more senior housing in this town," Strong said. "But that need has been around a long, long time. Why the sudden rush without first looking at all the angles?"
The council has also moved to assist the Quaker group, agreeing to cover costs up to $500,000 that are not paid for by federal loans. Minasian said the money could be used for improvements such as landscaping, street widening or curbs.
The size and scope of the two developments hinge on whether the Quaker group's project receives the low-interest federal loans.
If the group's Whittier project does not win HUD approval, the 75-unit complex probably would not be built and Isaacs would then develop the entire 2.3-acre site, eventually constructing close to 200 units, Minasian said. But if the Quaker group does get the federal loans, he said Isaac would then scale back his project to 125 units. A decision on the HUD loans won't be announced until Oct. 1.
Although the council has endorsed the financing of the two projects, Minasian said the actual design and construction of the complexes still have not been submitted to the city and must go through the normal approval process, including presentations before the Planning Commission and council.
Isaacs, a commercial and residential builder based in Laguna Niguel, also must seek a zone change for the property. It is currently zoned for commercial use.
5-Year Waiting List
Originally, the Quaker group wanted to build a complex similar to the 10-story, 153-unit Lutheran Towers, the city's only major senior citizen housing. About 180 elderly residents live in the high-rise building, which opened in 1973 and has a five-year waiting list.
"We were all set to push for 200 units, something that would cost around $12 million," said Don Kruse, chairman of the advisory committee for the city's senior center and a member of Friends Church of Whittier, the local Quaker congregation. "But the department of housing (HUD) is limiting these kinds of projects to 75 units--maximum."
Monthly rents at Lutheran Towers are federally subsidized. Residents are charged 30% of their monthly income, with the government making up the difference. The Quaker group is seeking the same kind of subsidized rental policy, Kruse said.
City officials said the 75-unit Quaker complex will cost about $5 million. That includes $1 million to purchase the land from Isaacs, who is buying the parcel from Niagara Investments Corp. of Santa Ana. The sale is now in escrow.
Adequate housing for the elderly has been a growing problem in Whittier.
For example, at Lutheran Towers, more than 300 people are on a waiting list for one of the studio or one-bedroom units.
Rents Keep Climbing
"I've got a couple openings right now, and I'm calling people who have been on the list since 1979," said Marilyn Selof, who manages the facility for its owner, Luther Land of the West, an investment wing of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
"Rents in this town keep climbing and for someone who is trying to live on a $400-a-month Social Security check, a $375 rent means one of two things: either you pay the rent or eat. That's a tough choice."
The Penn Hotel in its later years was inhabited largely by elderly residents on fixed incomes, the same economic and age group that would benefit from the two proposals approved by the council.
Conceived in 1920 by the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, the Penn Hotel opened in June, 1924. The opulent hostelry, named after the Quaker leader, played an important role in the life of this city, which was founded as a Quaker colony before the turn of the century. The hotel boasted 40 family apartments and 60 guest rooms furnished with such features as Oriental rugs and mohair chairs.
But a spectacular fire in February 1979 destroyed much of the hotel's east wing, and the three-story brick structure was boarded up until it was eventually torn down.