Home > Article from newspaper > Plan to house deaf seniors in Fremont goes awry

Plan to house deaf seniors in Fremont goes awry

March 26, 2007

By Lisa Fernandez
Mercury News

Charlene Mullinex, 73, right, signs with her neighbor Jeannette Mecaw, 82,… ( KAREN T. BORCHERS )

It was supposed to be the first of its kind in Northern California: a place where deaf seniors could grow old comfortably, and in the company of others like themselves. But after bureaucratic missteps and regulatory obstacles, Fremont Oak Gardens today has 19 residents who are deaf – and 27 more who aren’t.

The disparity has sparked the ire of some deaf community leaders, now puzzling how to bring more deaf people through the doors – doors that light up with flashing strobes to signal a guest has arrived. And it has some residents wondering what happened to the deaf-only enclave they thought they were getting.

Organizers acknowledge it was their call to tap federal funds for the $12.8million project – triggering non-discrimination rules that mean any senior, deaf or not, must be allowed in. But their dreams have also been undermined by the harsh realities of the Bay Area housing market, which made the apartments a hotter property with hearing seniors than had been expected.

At key moments, the organizers fell victim to their own naivete. In hopes of giving the deaf an advantage, but also anxious to be politically sensitive, they asked applicants for housing if they were “hard of hearing.” Every senior, deaf or not, said yes.

“All the effort we’ve put into this,” said Julian “Buddy” Singleton, 73, who is deaf and spearheaded the project, “is now just a waste.”

Deaf-friendly project

Fremont Oak Gardens, an affordable housing complex built with federal and city money and operated by a local non-profit, is one of more than a dozen similar deaf-oriented complexes in the country. It offers 50 single-bedroom units, painted cheerfully, that face each other in a circular pattern. Balconies look down on a shared garden. Lighted doorbells, strobe-light smoke alarms and special telephones are staples in each unit.

Fremont has long been a deaf-friendly city. It’s home to one of California’s two public K-12 deaf schools, and many services are designed with the deaf in mind.

Charlene Mullenix, 73, a retired Lockheed Missiles & Space forewoman who is deaf, loves having a smaller home after years of taking care of a house with a yard. At the same time, she said, Oak Gardens isn’t the deaf mecca that she envisioned.

“The hearing people just say `hello’ and that’s all, then they’re gone,” she said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “The deaf stay around and chat for awhile. We play cards, bingo. The hearing don’t ever show up to play with us.”

At apartment-wide meetings, Mullenix said, deaf residents sit on one side of the room, hearing on the other.

Mayme Buss, 82, a retired grocery clerk who

isn’t deaf, said she moved to Oak Gardens because, like others, she wanted a home that rents for well below market rate – a key reason why so many non-deaf tenants want to move in. She pays $845 a month.Priscilla Mayer, 85, who also is hearing, gives free art lessons to all residents and joins monthly potlucks.

“It doesn’t bother me at all, living with the deaf,” she said. “And if they’re upset, they haven’t expressed it to me.”

Experts say there are pros and cons to shared housing for the deaf and hearing. Non-deaf residents who lose their hearing can learn sign language to communicate their needs, and it’s often good to have hearing people during emergencies, said Ben Jackson, founder of Deaf Senior Housing in Georgia.

Conversely, Marlene Windham, administrator for the California Home for the Adult Deaf in Arcadia, says most non-deaf seniors who have lost their hearing don’t know sign language and can become “violent” with staff members because they don’t understand their gesticulations.

Oak Gardens, which opened in May 2005, was built by Satellite Housing in Berkeley, an affordable-housing non-profit that has been talking with San Jose officials for several years about building a similar deaf-oriented complex.

Leading the fight

Singleton, a retired graphic arts teacher who does not live in the apartments because his income is too high, is, by far, the angriest about the disproportionate number of hearing residents.

For nearly 15 years, he has worked almost single-handedly with politicians and developers to bring the project to fruition. Singleton said he has always been assured that the place would serve predominantly deaf people, who share a particular culture most don’t understand.

There are many reasons why Singleton’s hope has not become reality.

Some observers wonder if deaf tenants weren’t recruited aggressively enough, even though a survey several years ago showed that 400 deaf seniors said they’d be interested in the Fremont center.

Judy Leiterman, property manager for Water Tower View near Milwaukee, which has 45 deaf residents and five hearing ones, believes a more professional and experienced approach might have changed things.

“The effort was a valiant one, but undertaken by novices,” said Leiterman, who is familiar with Oak Gardens and Singleton.

Over the years, Singleton was never able to raise enough private money to build the project, something that would have given him more leeway in shaping the tenant list.

Instead, to build the apartments more quickly, Singleton and his team decided to use federal grants as well as “tax credit” money, turning the apartments into “affordable housing” – a term used to define homes set aside for low-income tenants.

Few new clients

Attracting new deaf tenants has proved difficult. When property manager Nancy Hammons recently called 95 deaf people to fill some vacancies, only one agreed to move in. Hammons said the rest were happy where they were or didn’t meet the strict income requirements.

Prospective deaf tenants also may have suffered a devastating blunder about three years ago.

During a lottery to determine who would win the apartment slots, deaf residents were given an extra “point” if they filled out their applications, distributed by Satellite, saying they were “hard of hearing,” said May Lee, housing program manager for Fremont, which put $4.2 million into the project.

Every senior – deaf or not – said “yes.” And in the end, the majority of slots were awarded to hearing tenants.

“Maybe this was an error,” Lee now acknowledges.

But short of kicking out all of the hearing residents, a move that’s clearly illegal, Singleton realizes there’s probably nothing he can do.

“Still, I’m just going to keep on barking,” he said. “It can’t hurt to fight.”

Contact Lisa Fernandez at lfernandez@mercurynews.com or (510) 790-7313.


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