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Golden Oaks, but no acorns

The folks gathered in Apartment 219 never thought they’d be having this conversation. They worked hard for decades, paid their taxes, made modest retirement plans and were able to make the rent.

Until now.

“When the rent goes up 30%, it’s a bit of a shock,” says Phyllis Brown, a 90-year-old widow who has lived in No. 219 of the Golden Oaks Apartments in South Pasadena for a dozen years.

The problem is that Golden Oaks, the only South Pasadena apartment house exclusively for seniors, changed hands this summer. The new owner -- who did not answer requests for an interview -- decided to renovate and raise the rates, which sent panic through the halls of the Oaks. As Jeanne Higgins, 73, put it, who needs granite countertops, plasma TVs and other fancy-shmancy accouterments in their retirement years?

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Already, roughly one-third of the occupants have packed up and cleared out, sacrificing familiarity and convenience for lower prices. Almost to a person, the remaining residents are loath to leave but unsure if they can afford to stay.

“It’s terrifying,” says Doris Brendgord, 86, who lives just down the hall in 209.

“It is a very serious case of abuse and discrimination,” insisted Hannibal Wei, 82, who appeared ready to lead a revolution. “It’s a corruption!”

Al Wacha, 93, says he looked for another senior apartment, but they’re few and far between. And he says that unless you’ve got about $1,500 a month to spend -- half again as much as he now pays -- you’ll be living in a closet “with rigid controls as to when you leave, when you eat.”

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At the Golden Oaks, residents point out, the public library is across the street, the senior center is next door and residents can walk to two coffee shops, restaurants, the Gold Line train station, the supermarket and the farmers market.

“This location is ideal,” says Peggy O’Neil, 87.

Phyllis Brown summed up the situation in three words.

“It’s our home.”

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So when the new owners took over, resident Karen Hirst wrote letters to the editor of her local paper decrying rent increases of up to 35%. There was even a threat that after renovations, the rent would soar again, although the building managers told me no such decision has been made.

The residents, almost all of them on fixed incomes, aren’t so sure. Up and down the halls of the 60-unit building, they’ve been wondering how they would ever handle a jump from $1,000 a month or less to more than $2,000. South Pasadena City Councilman Mike Cacciotti recalls a tearful phone call from Alice Hamrick, 70, pleading for help.

“About 50 of them showed up at a City Council meeting,” says Cacciotti, who helped persuade the new owners to delay any rent increase until January.

But there wasn’t much more he could do, says Cacciotti, who told me the owners want to turn Golden Oaks into more of a luxury retirement villa, and there’s no law that says they can’t. South Pasadena has no rent control provision, and Cacciotti is trying to push a proposal to require senior set-asides -- a measly one unit per 25 -- in future apartment house projects.

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In that regard, South Pasadena is like the vast majority of Southern California communities. It is doing little or nothing to accommodate its elders, casting them aside when they’re at their most vulnerable, even as real estate prices are at their most ridiculous.

Back in Phyllis Brown’s apartment, Hannibal Wei argued that South Pasadena’s situation is an aberration, because “America has a great tradition of respecting its elderly.”

I had to respectfully disagree.

Pensions are being virtually eliminated, prescription drug plans are incomprehensible and outrageously expensive, and the housing shortage is getting worse across the region and beyond as baby boomers slide into retirement and life expectancy grows. Even those who built inflation into their retirement planning didn’t expect a housing market like this.

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“Gentrification is just wiping out the affordable housing stock in many areas and making it impossible for many, who are not homeowners, to age in place,” says John Pynoos, a professor at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center and the author of several books on challenges we all will face as we grow older.

A federal housing program for seniors used to create 25,000 units a year nationwide under President Carter, says Pynoos. Today, that number is down to about 5,000, and the national shortage of senior housing units is in the hundreds of thousands.

So what do seniors do?

“They double up, they live in garages, and there’s a growing number of homeless seniors,” says Marvin Schachter, a Pasadena resident and former member of the California Commission on Aging. “They sleep on the couches of friends’ houses until they’re kicked out or they sleep in the spare bedroom with a teenage niece who’s living in a crowded, low-income rental.”

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Schachter, who also works with the Menorah Housing Foundation, offered an even more startling snapshot of the crisis. When Menorah opens a 100-unit building for seniors, he said, it typically gets 2,000 to 4,000 applications.

“People are scared stiff about all this,” Schachter said, and the stock market decline of recent years cut into annual income many had counted on to pay the rent. God forbid their health should fail and they need a nursing home, Schachter said, especially if their income is too high to qualify for federal support but too low to pay their own way.

“For a home with services, in Los Angeles you’re talking $4,500 a month. So there are people who thought they were in great shape with an income of $30,000 a year from Social Security and maybe a small pension, and now they need more.”

When I asked Pynoos what can be done about all this, he said the affordable housing bond that just passed in California will help, but he noted that another measure in Los Angeles went down to defeat. And we could learn something from policies in Australia, England and Scandinavia, where more services are available to help people retrofit their homes and age gracefully in them, with the dignity they deserve.

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Is it asking too much that cities legislate rent control for people 65 and older?

At Golden Oaks, most of the residents don’t blame the new owners for practicing capitalism. The problem is bigger than that, said Doris Brendgord. She cited, with disdain, a recent Times story about the city’s big plans to remake sleepy South Pasadena with swanky restaurants, loft condos and trendy stores. As Councilman Mike Ten told The Times:

“We need something young people can go to.”

Thanks a lot, say the Golden Oaks seniors.

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When I asked if any of them could move in with relatives, each said maybe, but only as a last resort.

“It’s not fair to your family,” said Phyllis Brown, and the others agreed. Besides, maintaining their independence is important to them.

“I think it’s fair,” countered Peggy O’Neil, “but it’s a lot to expect of family members, that they’re supposed to take care of both their children and their parents at the same time.”

Alice Hamrick, meanwhile, reluctantly moved to Montrose, where her apartment is smaller than the one she had at Golden Oaks, and there’s nothing within walking distance. Life was good, she said, when she could stroll across the street to her volunteer job at the senior center. But her new commute is a headache and she is about to retire, she said, her voice cracking.

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They once were paralegals, teachers, postal employees, merchants. They never expected to be having this conversation.

O’Neil told me her current strategy is to stay at Golden Oaks “until they evict me.”

And if rents go way up a year from January?

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” she said. “God willing, I might be gone by that time.”

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez


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