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Housing for seniors People Inc. is building more apartments with subsidized rents for the elderly

Irene Czekaj couldn't afford to keep paying $600 a month for her West Seneca apartment -- not on a fixed income of Social Security and a small pension.

"I was paying too much," said Czekaj, a 79-year-old widow. "I needed a break on the rent."

She found one in June in Burchfield Commons, a new subsidized housing complex of 49 one-bedroom apartment units for senior citizens on Union Road in West Seneca.

People Inc., the nonprofit organization that manages the complex, has two more under construction, in Cheektowaga and Clarence, and three being planned in Hamburg, Wheatfield and Lockport -- a building surge of upwards of $25 million in all. The agency also is examining the potential for apartments in Angola, Akron and Newstead.

But even after those projects are completed, people familiar with the needs of area senior citizens said the demand for more independent senior housing won't be met.

"Our demographics and certainly our waiting lists continue to indicate we need more," said Rhonda Frederick, chief operating officer of People Inc., which marked the opening of Burchfield last week with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

People Inc.'s 10 senior housing complexes in Western New York have waiting lists to get in -- some of them as long as two years. That interest is expected to grow along with the area's aging population.

"You hear that there are not enough good quality options for seniors," said Paul Clark, supervisor of West Seneca, which encouraged the Burchfield project by securing bridge financing of $200,000 from the Erie County HUD Consortium. "We're certainly ready to entertain more [senior housing complexes] in our town."

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a grant of $5 million for the West Seneca site, and similar grant awards are funding the other projects under construction, said Kevin Horrigan, spokesman for People Inc.

In Erie and Niagara counties, residents over age 65 represent 15.8 percent of the population, well above state and national averages of 12.9 percent and 12.4 percent, according to U.S. Census data from 2000. The Buffalo Niagara region ranks as the country's 10th-oldest among communities with 500,000 or more people.

In Cheektowaga and the Town of Tonawanda, people 60 or older already make up a quarter of all residents, said Pamela M. Krawczyk, commissioner of senior services for Erie County. And as baby boomers age, the number of seniors over 65 will top 20 percent of the entire Erie County population, according to county projections.

Residents in senior apartments like those at Burchfield are generally healthy and still able to care for themselves.

But they often can't attend to their own homes anymore.

"I had a beautiful home. I couldn't afford it," said Rose Conte, 80, who moved into Lilly Housing Corp., a senior apartment complex in Blasdell, about 10 years ago. The change was difficult, she said, but "it's worked out for me so far."

The apartments draw many residents who have lost spouses, and with them, a major source of income.

Finances became much tighter when Czekaj's husband, Edward, died five years ago, bringing an end to his pension.

Now, Czekaj's rent is limited to 30 percent of her fixed income, making it easier to manage. And, she said, "I'm close to everything here. My doctors are close. My daughter's close."

Many seniors don't want to move far from where they've lived most of their lives, building friendships and a sense of community, said Krawczyk, who wants to see more "age in place" communities, along the lines of Canterbury Woods in Amherst, created for people of all income levels.

In addition to People Inc., Belmont Shelter Corp. and MJ Peterson, several faith-based organizations have begun planning or building new senior living facilities, said Krawczyk.

Applicants for the subsidized senior housing units must be at least 62 and meet income eligibility guidelines.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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