Matt Driscoll

Plans to raze buildings at Tacoma retirement home stir an uprising. ‘This unit is mine until I die.’

Carol Ann Clark ended our conversation with an unnecessary apology.

“If I seem overly abrasive, I’m sorry,” Clark told me in complete sincerity. “I’m actually a nice person.”

For the past 19 years, Clark, a 79-year-old former registered nurse, has lived at the Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community in the city’s West End. In 2000, she moved in with her late husband, Harold, who passed away in 2008 after a battle with cancer. Two years ago she remarried, and now shares her unit in one of the retirement community’s single-story six-plexes with her husband, Marvin.

The unit Clark has called home for nearly two decades — C 5 — is supposed to be hers until the day she dies or is forced to move into assisted living or a nursing home, she says adamantly. She has a contract, signed by Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community and her late husband Harold to prove it, she maintains. It’s an assurance Harold paid tens of thousands of dollars for in 1985, and then tens of thousands of dollars more to add her to in 2003.

Recently, however, that assurance — and the peace of mind that Clark takes in knowing exactly where she’ll spend the rest of her life — has been threatened.

That’s why Clark is so “hostile,” as the normally genial retiree and avid gardener put it, and why she felt the need to apologize after venting to me by phone.

“I felt shock, and disbelief, and actually hostile — like you are not going to do that,” Clark said while discussing Tacoma Lutheran Community’s plans to demolish two of its single-story independent living buildings — ten units in total, including hers — and replace them with two five-story buildings, and a total of new 41 units.

“I still feel that way,” Clark said. “You can bring a bulldozer in here, but I’m still going to be sitting in my unit, because this is my unit.”

Clark isn’t alone in her anger. She’s one of a handful of residents in the two buildings targeted for demolition who feel the same way.

One, 79-year-old Ron Ford, a retired military veteran, has even retained a lawyer. Eight years ago, he paid $140,000 for his spot at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community, and continues to pay roughly $900 a month in fees to keep it. Ford proudly describes himself as “the instigator” of the retirement community uprising.

“You have no idea what a trauma this has turned out to be for the residents here,” Ford says. “Unless all of us die off, the (Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community) is not going to get their buildings back.”

“My contract says I’m in (unit) C 6 until I die,” added 94-year-old Miriam Ritter, who has lived at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community for 16 years, and like Clark and Ford, firmly believes her contract — and the substantial amount of money she paid — entitle her to stay in it as long as she’s able to.

“I don’t want to start again. I started over too many times during my life,” Ritter said. “I’m getting too old to keep up with all this stuff.”

As president and CEO of Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community, Kevin McFeely is very familiar with these concerns. He says he’s sympathetic, noting that “no one wants to move, and we totally get that.” He also maintains that Clark, Ford and Ritter are misinterpreting their contracts.

The contracts in question, McFeely says, most signed many years ago, do include a guarantee of “lifetime occupancy” at the retirement community, but not to specific units.

“Unfortunately,” McFeely says, residents are “missing the nuance.”

He says Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community’s team of lawyers has come to the same conclusion.

Ford’s lawyer, meanwhile, Steven Davies of Comfort Davies & Smith, disagrees.

“In my opinion, he has the right to live there for the rest of his days,” Davies says, pointing to a copy of Ford’s contract and the repeated mentions of lifetime occupancy, all of which he has highlighted.

“You cannot take this kind of money from people, make these representations to them, and then just unilaterally decide to pull it out from under them,” Davies adds. “No way.”

Ultimately, it’s an argument the courts may have to decide.

Financial concerns

McFeely says the changing economics of the business — including increased regulations and lower reimbursements being paid by Medicaid, Medicare and other insurers — have spurred Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community’s decision to raze the two buildings and replace them with two new, taller and denser ones. Additionally, plans call for a new three-story building, with 50 apartments, on the east side of the retirement community’s campus.

If all goes as planned, construction will start in about a year, and the new units will be available in roughly two. The proposed project is currently working its way through the city’s permitting process.

The new units, McFeely says, will be marketed to potential residents with “more assets,” he acknowledges, meaning they’ll be more expensive, relying on a different “entrance fee” model.

It’s a demographic that the retirement community has never served before, McFeely says, assuring that there will still be more affordable options available on the 28-acre campus — which currently has a total of 139 independent living units and 52 assisted living units.

“We will still have an affordable option,” he says. “We will not change that at all.”

Yes, as is so often the case, money is at the root of Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community’s decision.

The financial issues, McFeely says, don’t originate from the two buildings proposed for demolition, however. Instead, the financial reimbursements Tacoma Lutheran Community is able to recoup from third-party insurers for care in its nursing home have decreased significantly over the last few years, he explains. There’s also the burden of new regulations — or “unfunded mandates,” as McFeely describes them — adding to the retirement community’s fiscal dilemma.

Since 2015, Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community has incurred operating losses each year, McFeely says. The last three years, the losses have annually topped more than a million dollars, he adds.

The retirement community’s investments, and its foundation have so far been able to subsidize these losses, but the trajectory is unsustainable without adding the new units, McFeely explains.

“We want to continue to serve the community, but we can’t do it with the losses,” McFeely says. “The losses are increasing.”

In June 2018, McFeely says, the retirement community began formally notifying residents in the two buildings targeted for demolition of the need to relocate them. So far, he says, six of the units have taken the offer, but Clark, Ford and Ritter have held out.

Those who have moved, McFeely says, are happy.

The offer, McFeely explains, is intended to handle everything, from lugging boxes and furniture to reimbursing residents for improvements they’ve made with their own money and redecorating new units the same way residents’ old units were. McFeely has even hired what he describes as a “transition specialist” to help residents with the move.

David Quiring, 83, and his wife Ginny are one couple who has made the move. Quiring describes the transition as a positive one, noting that Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community has done “everything it possibly could to make this a good move.”

“We’re delighted. We just love the place,” Quiring says. “That’s not to say we weren’t upset when we first learned about it, but TLRC has given us just about everything and anything we had in the original place, and then some.”

That’s the goal, McFeely says.

“We’re trying to work with them,” McFeely says. “The bottom line is we are making our residents whole, plus.”

When it comes to those like Clark, Ford and Ritter, the president and CEO says that he hopes holdout residents don’t “wait until the last minute, when the options for relocation might be fewer.”

“The thing that we don’t want to have is that (they) would have to leave and go elsewhere,” McFeely says.

Ford, meanwhile, maintains that he has no intention of moving elsewhere — or leaving his unit, for that matter. He has no family in the area, he says, and the life he’s built over nearly a decade spent at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community is all he’s got.

“This is mine until I leave this world,” Ford, who will celebrate his 80th birthday in a few days, says with unwavering defiance.