In 1984, San Mateo attorney Lee Osborne was about to be installed as a the new president of the local Rotary. His brother Lloyd, a Redwood City club member, suggested a challenge — that Lee do something different and big to help the community. The San Mateo club had devoted most of its fundraising to student scholarships. Osborne believed the time had come for Rotarians to also focus on affordable senior housing. So the dream began. It took until 1990 for Rotary Hacienda to open its doors. In those six years, there were many hurdles to overcome, some routine and some unexpected.
First, Osborne had to enlist the help of a group of influential Rotarians. They included some of the major players in the community: Dick DeLong, San Mateo city manager; John de Russy, the city’s finance director; Dave Bohannon and T. Jack Foster, major developers; Julian Crocker, the superintendent of the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District; two city councilmembers, Paul Gumbinger and Aron Hoffman; dentist Richard Orr and banker Ed Johnson. Later on, businessman Lew Rowe, another Rotarian, worked with Johnson and Osborne to make the dream happen.
Then there was finding the right place. The group settled on land formerly used by Beresford Elementary School on 28th Avenue. It was for sale. But the school district had to offer it up to a public agency first. The city of San Mateo agreed to buy the site with redevelopment funds at the appraisal price of $980,000. They sold it back to the Rotary Club for the same price but the note was not due until 2060.
Next hurdle was the money. The club raised $225,000 from its own members and received a $4 million tax credit from Fannie Mae. Finally there were enough funds to start building.
But Rotary needed the approval of the two government agencies involved. San Mateo’s city attorney decided that the two members of the council who were Rotary members could not vote. Osborne met with the three other councilmembers — Jane Baker, Donna Richardson and Jane Powell — and convinced them to support Rotary Hacienda. The school district had given tentative approval for the sale but then, before the final vote, two of its members abruptly left the school board. It seems the two, although married to others at the time, had fallen in love, decided to divorce their spouses and marry each other. Osborne had to wait until two new board members took their place before the sale was legally confirmed.
The biggest problem turned out to be the neighbors. At the first neighborhood meeting, Osborne showed a film of similar senior housing in other cities and assumed the group would say, "Oh, how nice,” and be on board. Instead, most were vigorously opposed. There were concerns of traffic and parking. Some were afraid hearses would drive on neighborhood streets to pick up bodies of deceased residents. Others were worried about the noise of ambulances and sirens in the middle of the night.
There were a few who supported the project, including the clergy across the street at St. Gregory’s. The Beresford/Hillsdale Homeowners Association filed a lawsuit to stop the project, but it was dismissed. Then a neighbor sued on her own, lost the case, but appealed the decision She lost that one, too. The lawsuits caused almost three years of delay.
Finally, in 1989, work began on the 82 apartment senior affordable housing, known as Rotary Hacienda. When it opened its doors the following year, 130 grateful seniors were ready to move in. Ever since, there has been a waiting list of 150.
Now Lee Osborne had built his dream. But he didn’t stop there. He realized the demand for housing for the elderly in San Mateo far exceeded the availability. So again through Rotary and with the help of its members, he embarked on a second affordable senior housing project, Floritas. The second time around was much easier. The site was the former First Christian Church of San Mateo land located on 27th Avenue. There were no neighbor objections or lawsuits. Again, the city of San Mateo, through its redevelopment agency, was a willing partner in helping to finance the project. Floritas includes 10 two-bedroom and 40 one-bedroom apartments. It opened its doors in 2005 and, similar to the Haciendas, was full the first day and has a waiting list of more than 100.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.