LaVonne Stevens, 79, a resident at Tamarin Square Apartments in Durango, walked around the apartment complex pointing out signs of construction: holes cut out of walls, missing ceiling tiles and dust on the floor.
“We have people down here with cancer, lung disease, heart trouble. ... We have one blind man,” Stevens said. “I’m very concerned about them being in their units while this is going on.”
Construction crews were wrapping up a few projects before a five-month renovation process begins. The renovations, done while residents live in the units, will help the complex maintain its affordable housing status until 2050.
The 68-unit complex provides low-income housing for seniors or those with disabilities near Rotary Park and East Third Avenue. While some residents look forward to the improvements, others worry about health conditions that make them vulnerable to more severe cases of the coronavirus.
“If you’re already having a disease or disorder, stress affects it. That’s pretty well-known these days,” Stevens said. “(Residents) might not want to talk about it because they don’t want to make waves, but it’s still going to affect them.”
As the pandemic continues, Tamarin Square residents will be exposed to construction crews and materials. They must vacate their apartments during the day while they are renovated. If they don’t have family or friends in the area, the owners, California-based GHC Housing Partners, suggested seeking out public libraries or community spaces – contrary to Colorado public health directives that instruct at-risk people to stay home as much as possible. GHC Housing is following a process that has worked around the country, according to its spokesperson, but residents are still concerned.
Tamarin Square has not been renovated since 2002. The project is expected to cost about $15 million, and it has received about $2 million in state bond funding, allocated by the city of Durango and La Plata County, as part of a federal, below-market rate financing program for low- to moderate-income housing. The funding allows the complex to maintain its affordable status for 30 years.
“This property is in desperate need of upgrades and a face-lift, said Holly Jackson, vice president of operations at the property management group, Silva Markham Partners. “This project will be a beautiful place to live once the renovations are complete.
“It will just be a very long summer and fall for the residents,” she said.
How to breathe in this?The upgrades, about $25,000 per unit, were scheduled to start in May before being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Renovations include plumbing, heating, air conditioning, flooring, cabinets, countertops, window coverings, kitchen appliances and bathrooms.
Residents will live in place throughout – and that has raised concerns about health and housing alternatives.
Of seven residents surveyed by The Durango Herald, four were concerned about conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
The concerns were sparked by plumbing work that released plaster dust in the air, exposed insulation for days before it was covered and involved jackhammering in the hallways. GHC said the work was not part of the renovation project.
“I’m very concerned about being able to breathe in this,” said Linda Peterson, 72, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do.”
Stevens worries the construction will trigger her PTSD, anxiety and chemical sensitivity. When triggered, she can’t function. Her chemical sensitivity makes her dizzy and lightheaded. Her symptoms can last for days.
During the plumbing work, most crew members wore personal protective equipment and seemed to respect COVID-related restrictions, she said. Still, Stevens was concerned about having crew members in an apartment building with seniors and others who are vulnerable to serious cases of COVID-19.
Three residents said they did not have health concerns. One, Cindi Haddow, was ready for the project to start – even if it meant being inconvenienced.
“I’m all for it. This place needs renovating really, really bad,” she said.
Room at the inn?The renovation project is gearing up to begin. GHC is sending long-awaited information packets to residents. The first came Tuesday, days after the Herald contacted GHC with questions. It described coronavirus precautions for work crews, the project’s scope and timeline, future virtual town hall meetings and other preparatory information.
“This is the process that we have done multiple, multiple times,” said Tamara Sinclair, GHC Housing Partners regional director of asset management. “The reason is because, obviously, the renovations are something that need to be done. We’ve committed to doing the projects, and it’s to improve that community for the residents.”
Some residents have asked for alternative housing. As of May 23, residents interviewed for this story still were unclear about what housing alternatives were being provided by GHC.
In Tuesday’s packet, GHC said it would use furnished, vacant apartments at Tamarin Square to temporarily house residents, but it did not mention paid-for motel accommodations.
In an interview, Sinclair said GHC would pay for motel accommodations if there are not enough vacant apartments to house residents. It sent a relocation manager to the complex to conduct individual assessments with residents to identify housing needs, she said.
“The ideal is that everyone is comfortable during this process while we’re renovating, so we don’t want to put anyone in any situation that’s going to cause any discomfort,” she said.
Some residents are concerned about staying in motels and/or vacant apartments at Tamarin Square during the coronavirus outbreak.
“That’s a bit scary because we don’t know what kind of cleaning has been done to the motel,” Peterson said. Residents would temporarily move into vacant apartments after other residents, and she worried the apartments would not be sufficiently sanitized between residents.
Residents have to leave their apartments from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for seven to 10 days while renovations occur, according to the packet. The GHC packet suggested residents stay with family and friends, in public places or in shared areas within the complex. Residents with pets have to keep their pets with them.
If they needed oxygen tanks or daily medications for their health, that comes, too, said Diane Weidinger, a 65-year-old resident.
“That’s just not feasible. It just isn’t,” Weidinger said.
Stevens mainly wants to stay healthy and maintain an acceptable quality of life while renovation are in progress.
“I think all of us should have the option, if we want to be out of the apartments, to be in a hotel that has a kitchen and to keep up our standard of living,” Stevens said. “I think that’s reasonable, honestly.”