A Sanctuary That New York’s Seniors Can Afford
The James Lenox House on the Upper East Side has 99 units of affordable housing for seniors
By RALPH GARDNER JR. | Oct. 18, 2016
The Upper East Side, particularly around Park Avenue, probably isn’t the neighborhood that comes to mind when you think of affordable housing.
But amid the multimillion-dollar townhouses and limestone manses on East 73rd Street between Park and Madison avenues exists an oasis for middle-class seniors. Called James Lenox House, the unobtrusive 12-story brick building has been around since 1976, but the organization behind it, James Lenox House Association Inc., dates back to the Civil War, when it provided housing for a dozen war widows.
There are 99 units, with studios going for $1,100 a month and one-bedrooms for $1,300. To get one, you must enter a lottery, and if your name is selected, you are added to a waiting list, said Joseph Girven, the association’s executive director.
The wait is five years for a studio apartment. Needless to say, some applicants don’t have the time.
“A large part of the day is spent fielding calls from seniors desperate for housing,” Mr. Girven added. “We direct them to other providers.”
Residents must be at least 55 years old and have an annual income between $40,000 and $93,000 for a studio and $46,000 to $108,000 for a one-bedroom. However, an endowment ensures that nobody is evicted if he or she falls on hard times.
“We never throw anybody out,” said Nancy Rabstejnek Nichols, a member of the association’s board of directors.
At 99, Edith Sagul, a flutist who studied at the Juilliard School and became a performer and teacher, is one of the house’s oldest residents. She shops at the D’Agostino supermarket on Lexington Avenue and attends church. But not Madison Avenue Presbyterian, the church on the corner. She goes to Central Presbyterian, about nine blocks south.
“I like to get away,” she said. “I go with my walker to Lexington Avenue, take the bus, and use my walker to get to church.”
Ms. Sagul doesn’t have much use for Central Park. “I don’t like going to the park,” she said, feeling no need to elucidate.
Nor is she interested in the nearby JG Melon, my favorite burger joint. “I don’t like burgers,” she said. Perhaps avoiding fatty foods is part of the secret to her longevity.
Some residents may not feel the need to leave the building. It boasts a library, a beauty parlor (80% of the residents are women), a craft room with computers and a gracious garden with chaises and a fountain.
Students from the nearby Hewitt School, a private girls school that has an intergenerational program, pay social visits and play games. Madison Avenue Presbyterian dispatches young, tech-savvy parishioners to teach residents how to operate their electronic devices.
James Lenox House also celebrates holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and throws a costume party every Halloween. And musicians from the New York Pops give concerts.
“One of the residents said to me, ‘You know, this is just like being at the Carlyle, without the cover,’ ” Ms. Nichols recalled.
There is, however, an ulterior motive behind the house’s busy social life: to draw residents out of their apartments. Some of them are self-conscious about being alone, part of the reason the house doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day.
“People are too proud to come out of their apartments to let other people know they have no place to go,” Ms. Nichols said.
I visited two residences. The first was a richly decorated studio rented by Luis Maza, 78, who retired from the finance department at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/ Weill Cornell Medical Center.
The only part of his home not filled with art was the kitchen. “It’s enough with the pots and pans,” he said.
The second apartment was a one-bedroom belonging to the Rev. Earl Holkeboer, who is 93. There was a photograph on a table of Mr. Holkeboer and his late wife, Helen, hand-in-hand, with the inscription, “Being there for each other is timeless.”
An elaborate quilt hung on one of his walls, a retirement gift from his parishioners at the Community Christian Reformed Church in Fort Wayne, Ind. He believes it should eventually return to the church.
“One of these days,” Mr. Holkeboer said.