Resident council steps up at Highland Park apartments

Tenants, all ages 62 and older, work to address issues

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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For more information about the Highland Park Resident Council, or to donate to the group, email Elizabeth Hamilton at elhamilton@quietimpact.com.

Living in the Highland Park apartments wasn't what many residents hoped it would be.

In Vancouver's VanMall neighborhood, the federally subsidized living quarters for the 62-and-older crowd seemed a little run-down. The windows looked like they hadn't been washed in ages. The carpet was stained with dog urine and the laundry room was dirty. The community center wasn't lively enough, and life seemed lonely and glum for some seniors.

"A lot of the residents feel as though they have nothing to do except sit in their apartments and watch TV," resident Elizabeth Hamilton, 73, said. "Once you retire and you're not active in going to work every day or taking care of your family … time can hang heavy on hands."

A group of residents there, though, have decided to do something about it. After researching public housing rules, they formed a resident council that they hope will give them a stronger voice as they work with the building's management to boost their surroundings and their spirits.

Since forming, residents have bombarded the council with ideas. A pool table and a piano in the community room. Replacing the carpets and sanitizing the laundry room. Finding affordable car-washing and dog-washing services.

They also hope to beef up security, by installing a gate and security cameras, after some of the residents were harassed by teens who were riding their bikes through the building's grounds. Essentially, the council has created its own mini representative government for its residents, and its six board members hope to meet regularly with management to express resident concerns.

'Improve the whole thing'

Hamilton stressed that the council isn't angry with the building's management. They just want more of a voice in decisions about the building, rather than leaving things up to a manager. Kris Hanson, director of affordable housing at the Vancouver Housing Authority, said management at Highland Park has since washed the windows, is planning to replace the carpet and is willing to listen to other resident concerns.

"It's an opportunity for residents to participate and work with management to make positive improvements," Hanson said. She added that the laundry rooms are cleaned regularly and the apartments are located in a beautiful building.

The idea behind the Highland Park Resident Council formed just a few months ago, after Hamilton and her husband, David Hamilton, moved in. Before retiring, she worked as a teacher and the couple also did an 11-year missionary stint in Japan.

"My husband and I, when we moved in, tried to become friends with as many people as possible and get a feel for what was going on," she said. "As we got a feel for things, people began telling all their complaints and all of the things they would like to have but they don't."

The rent at Highland Park is subsidized with money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD brochures given to new residents encourage them to consider forming their own councils.

"They say it's the residents who really see what's happening and needs to be done, and if they can work together with management, then it will improve the whole thing for everybody," Hamilton said.

Hamilton, who says she has always been interested in legal matters, began to research the concept of forming a council, and what resident councils looked like in other parts of the country. The couple handed out fliers and got other residents involved in a steering committee. In July, the group hosted a meeting to gauge interest in a creating a council, and two-thirds of the building's 64 residents showed up to give the council the green light.

Residents then elected board members, and the council had its first regular monthly meeting on Sept. 18. Building managers helped the council translate bylaws into Russian to accommodate several of its residents.

"This is a good thing, because it's making everybody think a little bit and decide what they do want," council board member Allan Kirk, 74, said.

The improvements residents suggest can be paid for in one of two ways. If they address facility problems, such as dirty carpet or unclean laundry rooms, that's something the building manger needs to fix, Hamilton said. Extras that create a fun atmosphere for residents would have to come from money raised by the resident council.

The group is checking out Craigslist regularly, hoping to see that someone has posted a free piano the council could snag for its community room. The council also accepts donations.

"Right now, the community room is dark much of the time," Hamilton said. "There's just nothing happening. People have said, 'If there were just things going on, maybe game tables, billiard tables, a piano, things where we can come down when we're bored with TV and just get together with whoever's in there, and just enjoy ourselves.'"

As far as Hamilton knows, the Highland Park Resident Council is the only independent resident council in Vancouver. She said she hopes residents at other HUD buildings are inspired by their story.

"We would be happy to help others organize the same, because it's very valuable," she said.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.