Last month, the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) hosted a seminar on a somewhat new phenomenon known as "NORCs." Short for "Naturally Occuring Retirement Communities," the acronym has come to mean much to many seniors throughout the country, particularly New York City, who have been enabled to remain in their homes and communities. The term NORC is a demographic description resulting from a social pattern called ‘aging-in-place,’ says Nat Yalowitz, president and chief executive officer of NORC Supportive Services Center (NORC-SSC), a non-profit organization founded in 1996 to assist housing entities develop senior service programs. He explains, "Many older people who moved into apartment buildings or housing complexes when they were younger now need help to remain living independently in their residences." The NYARM seminar was just one step in an effort to educate the co-op and condo community about this evolving trend toward developing senior services.
The Purpose of NORC Programs
While each individual NORC program will have its own unique combination of services, the basic goals and objective remain the same: to improve the quality of life for senior residents. Services in NORC communities can include anything from increased amounts of social activities to assistance with personal hygiene. The NORC-SSC lists a number of its own objectives for member buildings. Some of these goals are: Improve residents’ access to services and programs by bringing them on site of housing units; Maximize client’s choices and control and promote resident autonomy; Improve the quality of professional services and client protection; Strengthen housing quality ( i.e., safety, security and maintenance); Promote residents’ interaction and sense of community; Prevent unnecessary or premature institutionalization; Ensure that services go to those with the greatest need.
Executed successfully, these categorical objectives benefit senior residents, their families, building boards and managers and entire communities. Seniors can obtain the support they need to stay in their buildings longer and they become more active in the community. In essence, NORC programs make for happier and healthier residents.
"Traditionally, senior housing has taken a backseat to the other forms of real estate. This is no longer the case. Recently, there has been a half-dozen stories on the senior housing field in the New York Times alone," says Bob Wisenfeld, publisher of LifeAhead, a newsletter designed to educate individuals about current and new senior housing communities in the Tri-State area. Adding that ABC Evening News with Peter Jennings has also visited the topic, Wisenfeld relates the need for society to understand the current condition of senior housing and services in their communities. It is important for boards and their managers to acknowledge the growing trend of NORCs and to, perhaps, mimic programs established to provide additional services to senior residents.
Why Programs are Needed
Yalowitz says there are two main components of life. "First there’s food and then there’s housing. Housing comes second only to food." What communities are finding is that new housing needs evolve as a community ages. He says, "Housing is complex in nature. There are numerous requests of resident that require more than bare walls." Ed Yaker, president of Amalgamated Warbasse, a 2,585-unit co-op in Brooklyn and one of the first communities to incorporate NORC services in their building, relates the situation. "In the mid-’80s we started getting increasing amounts of calls from seniors and children of seniors who needed assistance. It was like we had to take care of their parents." There was obviously a need for this building and those in similar situations to address important senior issues.
Fredda Vladick, project director of the large charitable organization United Hospital Fund (UHF) and a 1995 White House Conference on Aging delegate, discusses the demographic changes in the United States, exemplifying the growing need for senior supportive services. "In the United States, 36 million are 65 and older. That’s 12 to 13 percent of the population. In 30 years (2030), that number will continue to grow at extraordinary rates. This is of important significance when we think of ourselves... Is social security going to be there? What about Medicare?" She says that Brandeis University did a study for a potential of NORC needs from 1990 US Census data. "They identified 9,000 potential NORC communities."
While NORCs develop programs for physical needs, another trend that needs to be addressed in aging buildings is the disintegration of the social fabric. Vladick explains, "As the community gets older, interaction breaks down. It becomes a fragile, isolated place." NORC programs are an essential step towards providing ongoing services for a new paradigm of senior living. As Vladick points out, "Age knows no class. We all get old, whether we’re rich or poor." NORC services have been designed to combat the growing problems inherent in aging communities; to develop on-site services to assist resident seniors. Buildings have begun to include an in-house staff consisting of a nurse, psychologist and chaplain, and community events and programs which strengthen the community.
Penn South, a 2,800-unit co-op in Midtown Manhattan was the first official NORC program in the United States. Vladick herself remembers visiting this building when she was younger–her grandparents "were the first cooperators to move in." Years later, she was taken aback by the extraordinary changes she witnessed in a community which had started to decay. "NORC programs had increased interaction. There was activity. There was life." In a short time, the community had been completely transformed. She says of the improvement, "We’re now getting calls from private co-ops who say, ‘We need this in our building!’"
Penn South’s involvement with senior services began in 1985 when the board did a survey to uncover residents’ needs. The survey results identified specific problems and the board recognized that senior support services were needed. They soon began developing a pilot program with its own funds. "They allocated $8,000 to start the program," Yalowitz, who is also a member of the Penn South board, explains. "They now spend more than that in a week!"
Anita Altman, assistant director of the United Jewish Appeal Federation (UJA), the largest philanthropic organization in the world, serving over 100 social service agencies in New York metropolitan area, puts everything into historical perspective. "At the beginning of the Penn South NORC program, UJA was instrumental in combatting the first obstacle: obtaining funds." She explains that NORC programs are funded by a public/private partnership. The public sector is represented by government and the private side funded by philanthropy and a percentage of monthly maintenance fees. UJA has established the concept that government has to help. They have been instrumental in obtaining grants and lobbying for NORC legislation. According to Altman, "It has been the most exciting, creative time of my life."
UJA has contributed $1 million since 1986. Altman explains, "There is no way to continue this support because of other programs. That’s why the co-op boards themselves become partners." She cautions that there are two issues to consider when attempting to develop NORC programs in a building: "It’s difficult for seniors to accept services and they’re reluctant to pay a fee–even if they have the money." That’s why it’s necessary to promote inter-generational events and programs to improve the community as a whole.
Altman says she has the greatest pride in NORC. "I see the expression of tremendous appreciation in the faces of seniors." She credits Penn South for its large social vision. They were able to organize and create a thriving community. The next challenge was to replicate the success. "We weren’t sure that other communities would take up this kind of challenge." Major proposals surfaced in the early ‘90s. Almagamated and Co-op Village on the Lower East Side would join the ranks of NORC programs.
According to Yalowitz, Rochelle Captan, nyarm, RAM, CPM, manager of Amalgamated, was the most instrumental part if the buiding’s regeneration, "Warbasse could never have done it without Rochelle as the manager." Core services particular to both Amalgamated and Co-op Village were created for these communities." According to Altman, "Amalgamated put up $75,000 and Co-op Village put up $100,000 to participate."
Legislation has also paved the way to secure future financing. In 1994, New York State secured $1 million for the NORC programs. According to Altman, "Fourteen programs are now funded in part by New York State." She credits local leaders for furthering the programs interests in New York City. "Peter Vallone immediately grasped its importance. In 1999, $4 million was allocated in New York City budget." Vladeck points out that the criteria for obtaining the funds is different for the state and city. "The state has a threshold of 50 percent of the building must be 60 or older. The city’s threshold is 45 percent of residents 60 and older with a mimimum count of 250. The program must serve primarily low and moderate income buildings."
The competition to attain these new funds can become pretty stiff. Yalowitz says that smaller buildings work within a consortium. "On the Upper West Side, for example, some Mitchell Lamas act as one group."
Smaller Buildings Unite
Mary Robbins, co-chair of the developing Upper West Side Consortium, has witnessed first-hand the benefits of establishing senior programs. She says, "People have lived in my building for 20 years, everyone knows each other. It’s truly a wonderful thing to assist friends and neighbors." Her building, St. Martin’s Tower, a 174-unit co-op at 65 West 90th Street is attempting to group with two other co-ops on the West Side, Columbus Park Towers, a 162-unit co-op, and Strykers Bay, a 121-unit co-op, both on Columbus Avenue.
Robbins, a 20-year resident of St. Martin’s, learned about NORC programs and got together with co-chair of the NORC committee in her building, Addie Marks. She explains, "I read about services that other co-ops had in their buildings. I was very impressed with what they had done and wanted to establish something similar." Robbins continues, "It took seven years to develop, but here we are!"
Her pursuit to bring senior services to her building brought her to Nat Yalowitz and NORC-SSC. Told they needed 1,000 families to develop a NORC program, St. Martin’s tried to get six or seven other buildings on Upper West Side with which to band. What they soon discovered was that the other buildings were not prepared to go ahead. There was simply no way to raise funds. Robbins says, "We approached our board for funds and in two years we able to get them to finance our own NORC program."
Robbins is particularly proud of her committee’s do-it-yourself organization. She explains, "Larger buildings depend on city and state money. We’re only 174 families. But our building was so enthusiastic about the idea, we developed a program for our own building." St. Martin’s sought the help of Goddard Riverside, a senior center on the Upper West Side which provides many community services including a neighborhood building, day camp and children’s programs, which is right down the street from St. Martin’s. According to Robbins, "The center’s director Erica Teutsh was willing to work with us and recommended a social worker to work with our building. They pay the salary and then submit an invoice to the board which then pays it from the money allocated to the program."
St. Martin’s board, originally allocating $7,500 in the building’s budget for a social worker for one day a week, also supplies the NORC committee with an office and phone. In the process of developing the West Side Consortium, the other two buildings’ boards gave $10,000 each, so St. Martin’s board matched their contributions and boosted their NORC budget to $10,000. Right now the funds for each building remain separate but Robbins is hopeful that the consortium will be a success. "One day we’ll be incorporated and we’ll have our own 501-C3 non-profit status," she says. St. Martin’s was also able to obtain $5,000 from a local politician for their program. For the time being, Goddard holds on to the money.
According to Robbins, "Senior services in smaller buildings are the wave of the future. We’ve developed programs for our own neighbors who want to stay with us in the community and need services." Building programs include elderly assistance and aid. The building’s social worker meets with individuals having problems and gets in touch with family members if need be. "People are now able to function again," Robbins says.
The NORC committee publishes its own newsletter and provides special events, including monthly birthday parties, throughout the year. The programs stem from primarily selfless causes. As Robbins states, "We’re concerned for our neighbors." "But," she quips, "if we happen to need the services ourselves one day, that’s definitely a bonus!"
If NORC programs are to continue their successful emergence, "managers are critical," says Yalowitz. "Housing management has experienced an evolution over the past 20 years. The first revolution was with technology. The second is with services, starting from the senior down." Captan points out why the manager’s role is of so much importance: "Each NORC is different, unique. Individual cases differ not only the residents, but the style of management, the style of boards. There’s not a cookie-cutter approach."
Altman says of community support of NORC programs, "We challenge you to step up to the plate. Its a concept whose time has come. Everyone in the community benefits."