When the young lawyer for the owner of the St. Paul senior-housing community showed up to explain why the building was about to be sold for a luxury, market-rate development, she didn’t feel threatened by Janet Troutman Simmons. After all, in 2015, Simmons was 88! But that was a mistake.
“The building owner sent that young lawyer,” laughs Simmons. “But she wasn’t able to answer the kinds of questions we had. She simply wasn’t prepared for us. So we decided we would have to do something ourselves to save our homes.”
Simmons moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2006, to be closer to her two adult children—eventually making her home in the privately owned Como by the Lake. Unbeknownst to the other residents, they had just received a unique gift. In her previous community in Springfield, Massachusetts, Janet had accumulated a long record of service. For example, she spearheaded the development of senior apartments for the Springfield Housing Authority. She also chaired a neighborhood council that succeeding in establishing a mental health clinic that Janet then directed for 10 years. Simmons went on to manage the Western Massachusetts office for U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, skillfully using Department of Defense funds to create a camp for inner-city children on an Air Force base. But particularly relevant was her position on the committee charged with gathering information to support the federal law establishing Section 8 housing vouchers for very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled.
So, when the letter arrived stating that the Section 8 contract would be allowed to expire, she was a natural resource. When the attorney for the owner called the residents together, Simmons’ daughter spoke up.
“My daughter said, ‘I don’t think my mother would be in favor of what you have in mind. She’s had too much experience to accept this kind of thing’,” laughs Simmons, adding that until then, she hadn’t told the other residents much about herself.
The media in the room “pounced” on Simmons to learn more, and soon the other residents asked if she would chair a board and lead a challenge of the owners.
“I felt like I had to,” recalls Simmons. “No one else had that kind of experience.” Four other women agreed to be on the board.
Janet acted quickly to organize her neighbors, and enlisted help from HOME Line, a tenant-advocacy nonprofit, and NeighborWorks member Aeon. They wrote letters to government representatives, legislators, state agencies and neighborhood groups—expressing their fears of being forced to search for new homes. Their story was shared in local newspapers and online. When a community meeting was held, turnout was high.
Janet Simmons: Stepping up when a leader is needed
Janet acted quickly to organize her neighbors, and enlisted help from HOME Line, a tenant-advocacy nonprofit, and NeighborWorks member Aeon.
Alan Arthur, Aeon President and CEO, remembers the event well: “This meeting chaired by Janet — which included policymakers and legislators — was the most organized community meeting I’ve ever attended. With all her preparation, it was obvious she has experience leading and is passionate about creating positive change. She powerfully reminded all who attended that this was not only about Como by the Lake, but also about the loss of affordable housing across the country.”
The Minneapolis/St. Paul area has the same number of affordable homes that it did 25 years ago, and it is experiencing an ongoing loss to market-rate developers. By sharing their struggle, Simmons and her neighbors inspired attendees of Aeon’s annual fundraising breakfast to contribute more than $280,000. Together, they made a compelling case to the property’s owner, showing he had the opportunity to do the right thing while still meeting his bottom line.
“I could never have done it alone, though,” Simmons emphasizes, who also credits her religious faith. “We were powerful because of strong resident support.”
By the end of August 2015, Aeon had successfully purchased Como by the Lake and today still owns and manages the building. Simmons now serves on the Aeon board of directors.