Congregate Housing offers private apartments, shared meals

With its stonework and round tower, the town’s Prospect Ridge Congregate Housing facility — now approaching its 25th anniversary — looks like the private mansion it once was. But there’s a dorm-like feeling in dining room where senior citizens — mostly women — sit at tables, talking, eating the day’s hot meal.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s perfect,” said Sandy London. “Everybody is nice — very accommodating.”

She’s been there since 2011. “It’ll be six years. It was a good move for me,” she said.

“I like this place,” agreed Mary Maczka, a four-year resident. “It’s safe. It’s quiet. People are very nice.”

“I’m here over 20 years,” said Flo Coletto. “...Very nice, very nice. You meet different people. Everyone is very nice.

“If somebody’s nasty, we just kick them out,” she said with a laugh.

“We’d like to,” added a tablemate.

“Most everybody is nice,” Coletto concluded.

Coletto helps the chef sometimes, delivering food to residents who don’t want to come down to eat. And she assists when the Connecticut Food Bank comes by with food for residents, after a monthly food distribution at St. Andrew’s parking lot.

“I do a lot of volunteer work,” Coletto said.

Elaine Freistadt is an organizer.

“I initiated a lot of the activities here,” she said. “We have mah-jongg, movies once a week.

“Every Friday I go to the library and I rent movies. I usually show either a drama or a comedy. It’s a variety of films — even Fifty Shades of Gray!”

She signed up for a Congregate Housing unit after visiting her sister’s apartment in the Housing Authority’s Ballard Green.

“I came from South Carolina,” said Freistadt. “My sister lived here many, many years. She had a home in Ridgefield, and when she sold it she moved into Ballard. I came to visit, fell in love with the place, and now I’m here.”

Sandy Eppel’s lived in the Congregate Housing for seven years.

“When I first came I loved it here. Then the smoking got out of hand here — I have COPD, I’m on oxygen — and the manager that came with this company, Phil Sfraga, he helped me tremendously to keep after the smokers to smoke outside, not in the building. I just can’t handle the smoke and deodorizer sprays. He sets up all kinds of fans for me — everything.”

Edie Stillwell’s a longtime Ridgefielder — she used to work in Woolworth’s, when it had a store off Governor Street —  but she’s been in the Congregate Housing just a few months.

“I used to come here and work when I was with the Visiting Nurses,” she said. “I’d come by like the girls, working and serving.”

Does she like it?

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It works out very good here — because all the things they say you’re not supposed to do, everybody does.”

Congregate Housing’s stone building on Prospect Ridge was built by the Cheesman family in 1889. It was a novitiate for the Holy Ghost Fathers from 1922 to 1971, when the town bought it on 26 acres for $395,000. School board offices occupied the building many years, and it was converted to a congregate housing facility for seniors in 1991, opening early in 1992.

“The whole stone building houses 36 units,” said Selectman Bob Hebert, chairman of the Housing Authority. “Generally they’re one bedroom, a bathroom, a little kitchen and eating area, and a living room.

“We give the congregate services to 32 of them, and there are four that are just affordable housing units.”

It’s fully occupied. “Yep, 100%,” said Hebert, who’s served four years on the Housing Authority, and was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 2015.

Monthly rent ranges from “high $300s to the low $400s” on the one-room units, he said, and with about $770 a month added for services — one hot meal a day, an hour of housekeeping each week, and someone there 24 hours a day, seven days a week — staff during the day, a security guard at nigh.

State subsidies reduce what many residents pay.

“The rents the residents are actually paying, including the service fee, can range from $130 a month to $400 a month — that’s what they would pay, and that’s going to be based on their income,” Hebert said.

“We have a lot of people who have a Social Security check of $1,800 a month, so they would pay roughly 30% — $360 a month — for everything.”

It’s more than an apartment house.

“We have a full-time housekeeper there. We have a schedule set up. She goes in, and they’re entitled to one hour of housekeeping per week,” Hebert said. “Rosa will go in and sometimes people will say no, they don’t want cleaning this week.”

The one hot meal a day is lunch.

“We have an outside food caterer. The food’s very good. It’s food appropriate for seniors,” Hebert said.

“We do a Christmas dinner for them,” he added.

Chef Richard Rosler’s ‘From the Kitchen’ has provided food at the complex for a year now.

“I love it,” he said. “They have a good group over here.”

The meals are “very diversified, according to what they like,” he said.

“They love chicken cacciatore. They love pan-seared cod with pico de gallo sauce. What else do they love? Swedish meatballs.”

Volunteers help at lunch.

”The National Charity League and a group from St. Mary’s,” Hebert said. “They have a schedule and they have volunteers who come in every day, seven days a week, and they serve the lunches and help clean up.”

There are activities.

“Bingo every Wednesday. Wii bowling league every Thursday,” said Kimberly Henderson, the resident services coordinator.

She also works at Ballard Green, and is at the congregate facility Mondays, Wednesdays and a half-day on Fridays.

People raise concerns at quarterly residents meetings.

“There are always complaints,” she said.

“I believe most of the residents are satisfied. They’re happy here. Some people want changes. Some people are completely content — they love it.”

The facility isn’t limited to Ridgefielders.

“We have to abide by the fair housing laws,” Hebert said. “Anybody that comes in, they get on a waiting list and we go through that process.”

The list gets long, but that can be deceiving.

“We start calling people on that list and they may not be ready to come, they may have dropped off,” Hebert said.

“We can go through 10-12 names before we get to somebody who says, ‘Yup, great, I’m ready to move in.’

When a unit opens up, the average turnover time is less than seven days, Hebert said.

The congregate facility’s budget is about $190,000 a year, Hebert said.

The property is managed by Konover Residential, part of Simon Konover which manages apartments, hotels, offices, industrial and retail space throughout the East and Midwest.

Hebert’s happy with Konover the three years it’s managed the Congregate Housing as well as the 20-unit Meadows on Prospect Ridge, the 21-unit Prospect Ridge townhouses and 77 units at Ballard Green behind Ballard Park.

“They’re really very, very good. It’s not to say we don’t have problems now and then, but they address the problems,” he said. “They do great job, I could not be more pleased with them.”

There were a lot of problems at the Congregate Housing when Konover came in.

“That property was literally on the verge of insolvency,” Hebert said. “The previous company could not get their arms around all the regulatory issues and the different funding sources and the reporting and how to qualify people for the different programs — they couldn’t do it. And they couldn’t efficiently manage the property and residents on a day-to-day basis.”

Konover straightened things out.

“They came in, they cleaned up the files. They got everything in full compliance with all the regulatory bodies,” Hebert said. “We went from being one of the worst in the state to being a model for other properties.

“The files are in great order. From a financial standpoint we’re solvent, we’re actually putting money aside for reserves. We’re doing all the deferred maintenance things,” he said.

“We’re actually adding services for them. And doing some cosmetic things — painting and new dining room furniture to make it very comfortable for them.”

The Housing Authority, which oversees the congregate facility as well as the other Prospect Ridge housing and Ballard Green, meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 8 in the morning at Ballard Green, and on the last Wednesday of each month at 7 in the evening, with the location rotating between Prospect Ridge and Ballard Green.

“Judging by the number of people who come to our meetings and the comments we have from residents, they’re generally very happy, they’re appreciative, it’s well managed, and people enjoy being there,” Hebert said.

“It’s come a long way.”