Seniors losing an ally

Making a home for elderly tenants has been her priority

By Bonnie Kavoussi
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2010

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Ellen Feingold doesn’t work like someone who is a month away from leaving her job of 28 years. She averages four to six hours of sleep a night, and is still known to pull the occasional all-nighter, spending long days handling everything from letters and speeches to fund-raising.

On Aug. 13, Feingold, 80, will step down as president of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, a 45-year-old nonprofit with apartment complexes in Brighton and Newton that provide subsidized housing for low-income seniors. The organization, with an annual budget of $19 million, is funded by government programs and private donations. Residents pay below-market rent based on their income.

During her tenure, Feingold is credited with increasing the number of apartments, from 834 to more than 1,000 as well as expanding services that range from language translation help to organizing cultural events.

Feingold said it is part of the nonprofit’s mission “to make it possible for people to live out their lives here’’ with dignity and respect.

Too often, she said, seniors are treated as annoyances “because they’re old and cantankerous’’ or like people “who shouldn’t make their own decisions.’’

Before Feingold arrived, tenants were routinely transferred to hospitals or nursing homes when they became ill or frail, according to Gaye Freed, the organization’s senior administrator of resident services in Brighton. Now, fewer than 3 percent of tenants move to nursing homes every year.

Freed said there are always staffers on call to do such things as remind residents to take medication, or walk them to the bathroom at 2 a.m.

In addition, Feingold emphasizes the importance of physical activity, said Francine Godfrey, the organization’s fitness and wellness director. There are three gyms — one in Brighton and two in Newton — and a roster of exercise classes, including armchair yoga, and a music and movement class designed for seniors with dementia.

“She’s been in housing for so long that she realizes that you can’t put people into a building and not give them programming. They’d die,’’ Godfrey said.

Feingold has also made her mark on public policy. US Representative Barney Frank said she has been “a major source of information and advice’’ on housing policy ever since he was first elected to Congress in 1981.

She gives testimony to congressional housing committees at least once a year and often speaks before the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing. She also helped found Hearth, a nonprofit organization based in Boston that seeks to end elder homelessness, and has served as treasurer since 1991.

But it is getting tougher to offer affordable housing. Feingold was able to muster funding for only 90 out of 150 apartments in an apartment building scheduled to open in Framingham next spring. That has forced her to charge tenants in the remaining 60 apartments monthly rent at market rates of up to $3,000.

“Our objective is up here, and our pocketbook is down here,’’ Feingold said.

She noted that while the US population has aged, government funding for senior housing has been repeatedly slashed since the late 1970s, since it is on the “low end of the totem pole’’ of public priorities. Donations have also declined amid the recession.

During a recent interview, Feingold said she had not specialized in seniors’ issues before becoming president of the organization in 1981. During the Carter administration, she served as director of civil rights for the US Department of Transportation, using “the power of the purse’’ to pressure local transportation agencies to pay more attention to women and minorities.

“I came back just wanting to be on the ground, and I was offered this job, which is as on the ground as you can get,’’ she said.

When she first took over, the majority of tenants were American-born, with Soviet-born Jews and others who had been persecuted by the Soviet Union because of their religious beliefs composing a significant minority. Today, the population is much more diverse, as a result of another Feingold initiative. To promote Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, she encouraged her staff to visit the Brighton branch of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, which provides services to Chinese-speaking Asian seniors. Today, about 15 percent of tenants in the three-building Brighton complex are Chinese expatriates.

And since most residents speak limited English, Feingold hired bilingual staffers who speak Russian, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

Polina Margolin, a resident services coordinator, said Russian-speaking tenants often ask her to translate their mail.

One couple who recently moved from China said they depend on the Brighton center’s services to help maintain their independence. For example, they sometimes take a van provided by the organization to go to a Chinese supermarket.

Audrey Cai, 76, another immigrant from China, said that when she moved in, she realized she could lead “a new life’’ instead of being forced to live “a still life.’’ She has stayed active by volunteering, serving on the tenant council, and taking English, computer, and art classes.

Feingold, too, plans to keep busy. But after decades of planning for others, she hasn’t yet figured out precisely what she will be doing after leaving her post later this summer.

“I really am going to wait for things to come to me,’’ she said, “but I know I’m going to miss having my hands on making that happen.’’

Bonnie Kavoussi can be reached at