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Eviction notices stoke anxiety at The Academy senior living facility

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 28, 2018

“It was not handled the best way for people living here,” said Reba Crosby, 76, who with other residents of The Academy were told to vacate the historic building by Nov. 15. Utah-based Stellar Living is purchasing The Academy, a senior living facility near Gonzaga, and plans to redevelop the property. It has been a scramble for residents to find new housing before the Nov. 15 deadline. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
“It was not handled the best way for people living here,” said Reba Crosby, 76, who with other residents of The Academy were told to vacate the historic building by Nov. 15. Utah-based Stellar Living is purchasing The Academy, a senior living facility near Gonzaga, and plans to redevelop the property. It has been a scramble for residents to find new housing before the Nov. 15 deadline. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

At The Academy, a senior living facility near Gonzaga University, residents in the lobby weren’t talking about the weather or the day’s activities on Thursday afternoon.

Instead, they were discussing where to move.

“Everyone is looking for a room,” one resident said. Another said she had secured a room at Harvard Park, a retirement community on the South Hill, with the assistance of her son.

Residents – many who are elderly, many in poor health – received an eviction notice Tuesday stating they must move out by Nov. 15 to make way for future development.

Seattle-based Merrill Gardens, which had been owner and manager of the senior living facility, sold the building to Utah-based Stellar Living, a family-owned and operated company that provides independent and assisted living as well as respite services at eight facilities in Western Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

The Academy has more than 90 units in assisted and independent living facilities. Some residents have lived in the building for several years.

Resident Tom Berg moved into the building in June and was surprised when he received a notice to vacate just three months later.

“I’m 87, and I’m probably the youngest here,” he said. “A lot of people here are in poor health. It’s terrible what they are doing. People are devastated here. They are just in tears.”

Kyle Reiter, vice president of operations for Merrill Gardens, said the company sold the building to Stellar Living because it was struggling to keep up with maintenance and regulations required by the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services.

Reiter added that maintaining the historic building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was also a struggle.

“We tried to operate successfully, but it was too much of a challenge,” he said. “We’re trying to do the best we can for our residents and our team during this difficult transition. We’re helping the residents to find placement and help the transition to go as smooth as possible.”

Reiter declined to disclose financial details of the sale to Stellar Living.

Merrill Gardens, which purchased The Academy in 2015, operates nine senior living facilities in Washington and more than 34 facilities nationwide. The Academy was the company’s sole property in Eastern Washington.

The Academy building has a storied history. Designed by architect Patrick Donohoe, it was constructed in 1891 and served as a private school, known as the Holy Names Academy, for young women.

By 1902, the school boasted more than 235 students, prompting an expansion. Architects Herman Preusse and Julius Zittel added wings to each end of the building. Five years later, it became one of the state’s first private schools to offer a high school curriculum and teacher training courses for young women.

In 1938, the school began offering a four-year bachelor’s degree in education and Holy Names College was built next door in 1941. The college – now the site of senior living facility Maplewood Gardens – moved to the Fort Wright grounds in 1960.

Holy Names Academy closed in 1975 as the school faced dwindling enrollment numbers and expensive maintenance. In its more than 80 years of operation, about 5,000 students attended the school.

Adam Benton, senior vice president of Stellar Living, said the company looked at options to keep residents in the building, but it wasn’t possible because of the extensive renovations required to get the building up to code.

“To bring The Academy to a nicely renovated building would be incredibly disruptive to the residents,” he said. “We had to weigh that with the comfort and safety of residents. There was no way to keep services going while anybody was living in the building.”

Benton said the company is undecided if the building will offer multifamily apartments or senior independent living units, but renovations are expected to take about a year to complete with plans to retain the building’s commercial kitchen.

Benton added that Stellar Living is arranging several housing fairs for residents and will offer $500 toward relocation costs.

Reba Crosby, 76, who has lived at The Academy for more than two years, said she already secured housing on a farm with affordable rent.

Crosby said although Merrill Gardens must have its reasons for selling the property, evicting the residents at The Academy is unfortunate and could have been handled better.

“It was not handled to the best benefit for all those living here. Some of these people have been living here for years,” she said. “When you are going to make a big change like that, it’s a big deal for the elderly, especially when they are in bad health and most of the people in this building are in bad health. I’m sure this is going to affect their health and longevity.”

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