Milton’s newest senior housing facility might have a high profile name to add to its waiting list: Bernie Sanders.
The Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential candidate spent early Tuesday afternoon touring and visiting with residents of Elm Place, the Cathedral Square project at 60 Bombardier Rd. that opened last month.
Sanders was thoroughly impressed with the facility, the state’s first built to super energy efficient “passive house” standards – so much that Cathedral Square director of outreach and marketing Deb Bouton suggested he get in line to move in.
“We have a gym here,” one resident told the senator, who sat among about 15 local seniors in the building’s community room Tuesday.
“Fantastic! No kidding,” Sanders said.
“And you’re welcome to come and use it anytime,” another tenant added.
“I don’t know if I could keep up with you,” Sanders replied.
The easy dialogue continued for about a half hour before Sanders embarked on a tour of the three-story, 30-unit building. He engaged seniors on topics like healthcare, prescription drug prices and renewable energy.
He heard from Jessica Morrison, a wellness nurse in Cathedral Square’s SASH program – Support and Services at Home – about how her on-site work helps bridge seniors’ medical care, tamp down Medicare spending and keep patients out of hospital emergency rooms unnecessarily.
“What we want to do is expand primary care to do exactly what Jessica is doing,” Sanders said. “Even when people have decent insurance … sometimes it’s hard to get the medical help you need when you need it.”
Residents also quizzed the senator on Medicare premiums and the Republican healthcare plan, the latter of which Sanders called “a disaster,” adding Medicaid would have been slashed by $800 billion and 24 million Americans would have lost coverage under the so-called American Care Act.
“We killed that, we defeated that, and we will see where we go from here,” he said to a smattering of applause. “Everybody knows that the Affordable Care Act has problems, and we want to improve it … but you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
An outspoken critic of “Big Pharma,” Sanders asked seniors if they’re getting prescriptions at an affordable price.
“No,” resident Pat Laskowski replied. A recent trip to the pharmacy found her $46 prescription suddenly cost $121.
Sanders lamented the industry’s ability to “charge you any price they want,” leading to instances of drug prices increasing five- or ten-fold and Americans’ increasing inability to afford necessary care.
A 2013 CDC study found almost 8 percent of adults didn’t take their prescriptions in an effort to save money; 15 percent asked a doctor for a cheaper drug and nearly 2 percent sought drugs from another country.
“[President Donald] Trump claims he’s concerned about the issue,” Sanders said. “We will see if he is prepared to work with us. But we have several good pieces of legislation.”
Laskowski wasn’t heartened.
“Most of us here don’t have too much longer to appreciate that change,” she said.
“I’ll let the president know,” Sanders replied to laughter.
Fittingly, conversation moved next to affordable housing, an area for which Sanders praised Cathedral Square. Now celebrating its 40th year, the Burlington-based nonprofit owns or manages nearly 30 senior housing communities in Vermont.
“We should be proud of it, but we need to do a lot more,” he said, wondering how millions of families spending half their income on housing can afford to pay for any other needs.
“Think about what it means to seniors all over this country to be in places like this,” he said. “People live longer, they will become less ill, they will be happier. And you know what else we do when we build places like this? We create jobs.”
Twenty-five of Elm Place’s 30 one-bedroom apartments are spoken for, and the rest will be occupied by May. Statewide, over 800 people are on Cathedral Square’s waiting list, CEO Kim Fitzgerald said, emphasizing the need for more tax credits and deeper subsidies.
Seventy-five percent of Elm Place’s $8.5 million funding came from low-income housing tax credits, and Fitzgerald thanked Sanders for his long-standing support of programs like the Vermont Community Development Program and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
Last year, Vermont became one of the first states to receive $3 million from the National Housing Trust Fund, “but we need a lot more than that, I know,” Sanders remarked.
One resident asked Sanders why his Republican colleagues want to cut Meals on Wheels.
“They would much prefer to give tax breaks to billionaires than to fund excellent programs like Meals on Wheels,” Sanders said. “I cannot explain why in a rational world anyone would want to defund that program … and we will do our best to make sure they don’t.”
Sanders assured seniors Trump’s “disastrous, unbelievably bad budget” would not pass Congress, and he vowed to fight for federal programs many regularly use.
He also extolled developers for maintaining such high standards of energy efficiency: Elm Place’s projected heating demand is equivalent to that of an average single family home, development director Cindy Reid said.
“Everybody hear that?” a genuinely impressed Sanders asked. “This is really extraordinary.”
Reid likened the facility’s super insulated shell to a thermos, keeping hot and cool air inside as needed. Add in a state-of-the-art ventilation system, a 20 kilowatt-hour rooftop solar system, triple paned windows “and even venetian blinds,” one resident joked, and the building is expected to require 95 percent less heating energy than the same size facility built to code – an annual savings of $11,600.
That money is re-invested into services like SASH that helps seniors age in place.
Elm Place’s central location helps with that, Reid said, noting access to the bus line, nearby medical center and proximal stores and pharmacies was an important consideration in siting the project.
Standing in the vacant living room of one well-lit unit, Sanders learned the $780 to $1,000 monthly price tag includes utilities, laundry and SASH. And, of course, the gym.
One month in, residents certainly seem happy. Especially Irene Montgomery, who moved here after 21 years in Franklin. Montgomery told Cathedral Square’s Bouton she feels like she’s “living in a dream.”
On Tuesday, Montgomery slipped upstairs, past Sanders’ aides and right up to the senator, who accepted an invitation to her new apartment.
“Come on in,” she said, leading him through the space. He gazed at the recurring floral motif, fully set table and a glass cabinet full of angel figurines.
“Oh, this is beautiful,” Sanders said. “You’ve done a beautiful job decorating.”
Montgomery beamed and posed for a photo with the former presidential hopeful in the middle of her living room. Could she have ever imagined opening her door to one of Vermont’s most famous exports?
“Oh, my God,” she said. “I never could!”