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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

After Outcry And Anger, Oakville Senior Living Opens To Capacity

Geneva Moran moved into National Church Residences this summer. She said she's had a great experience, even though the facility was often mired in controversy.
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

On Tuesday afternoon, residents of a newly-minted senior living facility in south St. Louis County were ready for a party.

After officially opening in June, officials with the South County Chamber of Commerce helped cut the ribbon on National Church Residences Telegraph Road.  Inside a room with shiny wooden floors and hip artwork and decor, the $5.2 million building was officially welcomed into the unincorporated St. Louis County township of Oakville.

Geneva Moran is one of the residents who moved into the center, which is filled to capacity. The longtime Oakville resident is thankful for the housing, especially because traditional apartments became too expensive after her husband died. 

Residences of the National Church Residences Telegraph Road raise their hands when asked if they live there. The 44-bedroom facility is completely full.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Residences of the National Church Residences Telegraph Road raise their hands when asked if they live there. The 44-bedroom facility is completely full.

She said she values her independence – and the companionship she's found at the facility.

“There is something with being around the people that are your own age. And the activities that we do are sometimes different from young people,” said Moran, who is 77. “And we’re just a very good, I shouldn’t say bunch, but group of young ladies. And, we have a few men too.”

But it wasn’t too long ago that some of the facility's neighbors were less-than-festive about the independent living center. A little more than year ago, the center generated harsh words and bitter debate inside the chambers of the St. Louis County Council.

There were plenty of rationales against the facility, and Mark Haefner said there is still lingering frustration throughout his community.

“We work pretty hard and with very little involvement or help from Clayton to make this a nice community,” said Haefner recently, an attorney and the son of state Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-St. Louis County. “And when they start doing things without giving the proper notifications, people get upset.”

But while some Oakville residents still object to how the facility was built and approved, supporters of the project were put off by outlandish assumptions about the residents -- many of which are widows collecting Social Security.  

And one of the key players in the saga, St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger, said that even though some people may balk at low-income senior facilities, the demand is there to build them all over the county.

“I would anticipate what we’re going to see with an aging county is the need for more senior housing,” Stenger said. “And I will be here as the leader of St. Louis County to ensure that residents and seniors who require low-income housing such as the NCR development have a place to live.”

“I’m just going to ask this rhetorically, what else would we do?” he added.

An after-the-fact struggle

The Telegraph Road structure was built by National Church Residences, a Columbus, Ohio-based, not-for-profit that operates low and moderate income senior housing in 28 states and Puerto Rico. To qualify for the facility, a single person must be 62 years or older and have an income of roughly $24,250 or less. A resident pays around 30 percent of their income to live in the facility – which usually comes from a person’s Social Security check. 

National Church Residences' Michelle Norris speaks to a crowd earlier this week.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
National Church Residences' Michelle Norris speaks to a crowd earlier this week.

“I think that senior housing like this is so important to our country,” said Michelle Norris, the president of National Church Residences’ development company. “There’s an aging tsunami – some of those folks have needs and a lot of them do not. And so, to bring them to a place like this where you can have people live independently as long as possible not only is the best quality of life for them, but it’s also the best answer for a lot of the more expensive health care options that are really out of reach of these folks or are also something nobody wants because of the cost to the health care system.”

The facility received about $6.7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for construction and land purchase. Because it was being built in unincorporated St. Louis County, it needed – and received – approval from the county’s planning and zoning commission and the St. Louis County Council.

Once the project was approved, however, Oakville residents filled the St. Louis County Council chambers to try and scuttle the project. Some didn’t like the project’s design or size. Even a group of cloistered nuns worried about the facility’s impact on their grounds. 

A representative for a group of cloistered nuns speaks before the St. Louis County Council last year.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
A representative for a group of cloistered nuns speaks before the St. Louis County Council last year.

Other political leaders said they were upset that residents didn’t get enough notice about the project. A public notice was placed in a little-read legal publication. The head of the day care center that’s next to the facility said last year she didn’t receive a written heads up. (It should be noted that there was a short item in the Oakville Call long before the project became controversial.)

Some residents, such as Richard Dohack, were worried about the facility’s location next to the day care. People like Dohack were especially concerned about hypothetical interactions between the seniors and the children.

“We don’t what any of these people are capable of,” Dohack said during a St. Louis County Council meeting last year. “You know, things can be thrown at the children from that distance.”

Norris said her company often faces this type of reaction in other cities. Some people, she said, reflexively oppose a project because “the unknown makes people nervous.”

“We’ve always felt like if we could just get folks to be patient long enough to realize what we were building and whom we were going to serve, everybody would be comfortable,” Norris said. “And I think that’s exactly what happened.”

The takeaway

Obviously, the protests didn’t stop the project. More than a year later, the facility is done. But some of the key players in the saga had some notable takeaways. 

The exterior of National Church Residences Telegraph Road.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The exterior of National Church Residences Telegraph Road.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said the county made some changes to how it notifies people about projects, including using email. But he took issue with the idea that the process for approving the project was somehow unfair.

“Whatever you do, there’s always somebody that’s going to oppose it,” Dooley said. “But the issue is, is it enough to stop the project? Hopefully not.”

Dooley also said he was worried that some project opponents made an unfair connection between the residents’ socioeconomic status and criminality. Other commentators observed that the opposition might have been racially motivated – especially since Oakville is overwhelmingly white and some residents of HUD facilities are black.

“Low-income housing has nothing to do with criminal activities,” Dooley said earlier this week. “It’s just those individuals on a lower spectrum of the income level. Sometimes people try to associate that, and that is unfortunate.”

Opponent Mark Haefner strongly emphasized that his contention with the facility had nothing to do with race or economic status. Rather, it was that Oakville residents didn’t get a fair chance to sound off on the proposal. He questioned whether the process would have worked out differently if Oakville was an incorporated municipality.

“Truth be told, I bet there’s plenty of need for senior housing down here,” Haefner said. “And I’m sure there’s plenty of need for low-income senior housing in this area. But that wasn’t the location to build that size of a building in my opinion. I don’t think it was a good spot for the seniors, I don’t think it was good for the local businesses. I don’t think it was good for the neighborhood at large.”

Both Dooley and Haefner have been especially critical Stenger, who they contend vacillated on his support of the project. 

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger

Stenger was the sponsor of a bill that allowed the facility to be constructed. But after Oakville residents spoke out about the project, he convinced the council to send the project back to the county’s planning and zoning commission. Ultimately, the commission declined to overturn the project’s zoning designation and efforts to derail the project fizzled out.

Stenger said last year that the planning commission’s original report that showcased no opposition was a big factor in moving the project through the county council. He added if he had known there was “vehement” opposition to the facility, he wouldn’t have put the measure before the council.

Earlier this month, he said the episode taught him a lot.

“You have to weigh the various interests,” Stenger said. “We may run into a situation where we have a local community that is just absolutely opposed to a particular development for particular reasons. And you have to look at the reasons we see the opposition, whether those reasons are real or pretextual. We have to make that determination and figure out through a process of analysis what is the best location for a particular development.”

Into the future

Norris said the program that funded the Telegraph Road facility is being phased out because of budget cuts. But as county executive, Stenger will have an influential role in determining where senior centers with low-income housing tax credits get built. 

Francis Harvilla shows off his room at National Church Residences Telegraph Road. Harvilla said his new home is "excellent." “I mean, where can you find them in good neighborhoods where they don’t tear them down and ruin them? This is a neat area, but it’
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Francis Harvilla shows off his room at National Church Residences Telegraph Road. Harvilla said his new home is "excellent." “I mean, where can you find them in good neighborhoods where they don’t tear them down and ruin them? This is a neat area, but it’s a neat project," he said. "You know, it’s not just like your everyday project – you know what I mean?”

With roughly 16 percent of St. Louis County over the age of 65, Stenger said there will likely be a large demand for senior housing in the near future.

“I think there is certainly a heavily weighted factor that relates to residents’ opinion in the area, if it’s a development that is going to be located in a particular residential area or an area where we have county residents. So that’s absolutely a factor that has to be considered," Stenger said. "But, the overriding interest has to be that we need to provide senior housing wherever that may be. And we have to provide senior housing in the communities that are at or near the places where those seniors have spent their lives.”

After the controversy settled down over the senior center, some Oakville residents openly talked about incorporating into a municipalityor starting their own county. Haefner said he’s not sure about the status of such talk, but added that Oakville residents need to have their opinions respected.

“It’s hard for me to say what they did right and what they did wrong – because they didn’t do much right,” Haefner said. “And I think the way that they handled it afterwards was wrong.”

For her part, Moran -- one of the facility’s residents – is well aware about the controversy that surrounded the facility. She added “we’re just people looking to live our lives peacefully and happily.”

“I was really surprised because older generation – they’re very caring people,” said Moran, referring to the outcry over the facility. “We’re very careful people. And we don’t cause any disturbances. We do maybe have a few health issues occasionally. But other than that, we’re just a bunch of happy people.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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