This article was originally published by The Mennonite

An innovative solution to affordable housing

Photo: Ruth Dunlap, right, who attends Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, and Rose Sheaffer, who attends New Holland Mennonite Church, reside at the Cooperative Living House at Garden Spot Village in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Photo provided by Garden Spot Village.

This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Health care: a biblical and cultural concern.” For more stories on this theme, see the November issue of The Mennonite, available here.

When Ruth Dunlap began to seriously consider downsizing from her home in Ronks, Pa., in early 2017, she was discouraged by the lack of affordable housing for people 62 and over. Even though she owned her home and worked part time, she couldn’t afford the entrance fee or the monthly fees required by traditional continuing-care retirement communities.

She read an article in the local newspaper about a Cooperative Living House that Garden Spot Communities was working to build. She was intrigued by the concept and reached out to learn more.

A vision for the future

Ruth Dunlap, who attends Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster. Photo provided by Garden Spot Village.

As the CEO of Garden Spot Communities, an Anabaptist-affiliated continuing-care retirement community based in New Holland, Pennsylvania, Steve Lindsey was well aware of the need for safe, affordable housing for people 62 and over. For years, Steve and others at Garden Spot had been researching, thinking and dreaming about how to build an affordable housing model that would serve people who could not afford the traditional retirement community model. What made the vision unique? The plan relied on individuals, churches and the local community for long-term sustainability instead of government grants or subsidies.

In 2015, Garden Spot invited local business leaders, churches and nonprofit organizations to join the vision. Drawing from the model of Mennonite Disaster Service, which raises funds and uses volunteer labor to build homes, Garden Spot Communities engaged the local community.

A steering committee with representatives from Garden Spot, CrossNet Ministries, the New Holland Business Association and local churches embraced the vision and helped achieve affordability by raising funds and connecting with volunteers from companies like Weaver Construction & Roofing, Revelations of Freedom Ministries, Franklin & Marshall College, the New Holland Rotary, New Holland Mennonite Church and Garden Spot High School. Garden Spot Communities allocated the land for the home.

A new model

As the plans unfolded, a blue print for a 3,400-square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bathroom home with large common spaces evolved. The home’s open floor plan includes a large kitchen, dining area and living space with an attached parlor that includes a door that could allow residents to host guests privately. An upstairs loft also allows room for hosting guests.

The steering committee began to raise funds, recruit volunteers and create a loose framework of guidelines for the home, recognizing that they were forging new ground and that adaptability was key to the success.

Beyond the building, the plan for the home is twofold. First and foremost, the Cooperative Living House provides affordable and safe housing. But second, and somewhat more important, Steve says: “Drawing upon the Anabaptist value that recognizes community as the center of our life, the Cooperative Living House replaces isolation with community. Isolation has psychological impacts; our social and physical health deteriorates when we live in isolation. Living in community—with a small group of other people you know, care about, learn to live life with together—helps mitigate all those challenges people face as they age.”

A new home

As 2018 rolled around, Ruth realized she could no longer financially and physically maintain her home. About the same time, Garden Spot put the finishing touches on the Cooperative Living House and reached out to her, asking if she was still interested in the opportunity to live in the home.

The timing was perfect and the idea for the home felt visionary, so she applied for the opportunity. She says, “I connected with the idea of being a pioneer. Pioneers have a vision for the future but also have a problem to solve, investigate and figure out how to navigate the unknown.”

Throughout the application process, Ruth says, Garden Spot representatives were transparent and respectful. “There was no pressure, no rush for me to make a decision. The process was respectful and honest, and everyone was upfront about the opportunity. They were patient with my questions and concerns and often said, ‘Take your time’ to make a decision.”

Once she made the decision to move to Garden Spot, she put her house up for sale, and it sold within a week. “It just went so fast,” she says. “It was such a relief.”

Ruth moved into her new home on Ranck Road on April 26 and spent the spring and summer settling in and connecting with her housemates and the Garden Spot Village community.

“This is my home. I’m happy I made the decision to make this move,” Ruth says. “It’s energizing to be with people who are in different but at similar stages of life. Together we’re making the house into a home. I also feel connected to the Garden Spot Village community. Between social workers and the hospitality group, I feel like I am part of a vibrant community.”

In the coming years, Garden Spot Communities hopes to build four more Cooperative Living Houses on the Ranck Road property. Steve says: “We believe the Cooperative Living House is one of those projects that can be scalable into future. Obviously, a house for five people isn’t going to change the world immediately. But if we can build a house here for five people and a house in another neighborhood for five people and help a church in the neighboring community build a house for five people, pretty soon it can start to gain the momentum where it really could have an impact on the way we care for and the way we serve older adults in our community as we go into the future.”

How does it work?

Ruth and her housemates each rent a bedroom with a private bathroom with a month-to-month lease and a sliding-rent scale based on 30 percent of their monthly income. They share a common kitchen, dining and living spaces as well as storage areas and a two-car garage.

Ruth’s rent covers utilities, lawn care and ongoing home maintenance. In addition, she can use all the amenities at Garden Spot Village, including the pool, theater, community gardens and restaurants.

Although Ruth does not have guaranteed access to the continuum of care at Garden Spot Village, a dedicated social worker will help her navigate next steps if her health declines and she needs long-term care.

Garden Spot also partners with CrossNet Ministries in New Holland to provide access to additional social services for residents as needed.

Juanita Fox is a storyteller at Garden Spot Village, which is affiliated with LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches, the Atlantic Coast Conference of Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Health Services, LeadingAge and LeadingAge PA.

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