Madeline Hill; Senior Community Pioneer

May 10 21:00 2004 John Darling Print This Article

Madeline Hill may be unique among senior ... ... She created her ... dollar “city,” – an upscale, yet ... group of ... homes, condo’s and ... -- not so

Madeline Hill may be unique among senior community developers. She created her multi-million dollar “city,Guest Posting” – an upscale, yet affordable group of single-family homes, condo’s and apartments -- not so she could become a rich and powerful CEO, but so she could hand the whole thing over, debt-free, to the home-owner’s association.

It was a vision thing. Hill got the idea when she was a high-level bureaucrat with state senior services and saw her friends getting old, needing help and having no place to go but assisted living centers, adult foster care and nursing homes in the big town 15 miles away.

Why couldn’t this aging group of friends live near each other for support, have services brought to them (rather than being shipped around to various facilities as their need for care deepened) and, above all, keep and use their hard-won equity to maintain their own home -- a much simpler, single-level, maintenance-free home that works for older people?

“What decided me was when my neighbor fell and it became apparent she couldn’t stay in her home,” said Hill. “She asked me to help her move to an apartment 12 miles away. She cried in the car and said, I bet you won’t come visit me. She said she would never again see her friends, the library, the parks, the friendly cashier at the market and all the things that spell community and make life worth living.”

Through the 1970s, the vision took hold – helping older people to live independent lives, with dignity – and surrounded by friends, family and community. Especially women, who, at that time, hadn’t had access to credit and the knowledge of how to handle money.

“I took a seminar called ‘Do You Have What It Takes To Be an Entrepreneur.’ It was oriented toward women and it opened my eyes that I could do things and be assertive – that women could be leaders, make decisions and that it was ok for women to talk about money and power and be comfortable in that realm.”

But Hill herself knew almost nothing about money and to prove it, she and her husband Hunter had just lost $40,000 by handing it over to a broker who put it in limited partnerships, “which had no inherent value but were supposed to be good tax shelters,” Hill said.

“It wiped us out and was embarrassing, too. I decided I was never going to put faith in something I didn’t understand. I started reading about real estate. The concept came: I knew my town – Ashland -- the city council and planning commission and the local economy. The was something I could see and feel and learn – the opposite of sending money to New York City.”

Hill went to the library (this was before the internet) and checked out books on how to make a million in real estate. She also read two life-changing books – Phyllis Chesler’s “Women, Money and Power” and David Schwartz’s 1959 classic, “The Magic of Thinking Big.”

“Schwartz showed me that, with about the same effort, you can do something to help one person or a whole lot of people. About the same time, a guy came (to her state jobsite) and gave a lecture on the positive nature of change. In doing the processes and games, I realized all the others resented and resisted change and I was the only one who loved it. I knew I had to get out of there.”

Hanging onto her job in the meanwhile for cash flow and borrowing power, Hill in 1985 bought her first rental for $19,000. She could choose tenants, check the their credit and divert savings from jobs into something that was growing. (The Rogue Valley was then beginning an enormous surge of immigration, mostly from California, and appreciation in housing prices that’s still going on.)

The investment was hands-on and labor intensive. With help from her retired parents, Hill learned how to hang sheetrock and insulation, lay carpets and paint rooms. She liked it. It was real and tangible, with results you could see and feel a sense of accomplishment about.

She joined the local rental owners association, learning from peers – and her realtor – how to analyze a property with an eye to something that would grow. She told her real estate agent to watch for the next good property. It was a duplex for $72,000 on a nice street in rapidly appreciating Ashland. Hill in 1987 took the big leap – refinancing her own home for the down, but getting lower interest so her own payment remained the same.

The magic of investment was beginning to work. She fixed up the duplex (now appraising at $270,000 a gain of over $12,000 a year) refinanced it to lower interest twice, while pulling out $25,000 each time to land two more rentals, since fixed up and sold at profit.

But it wasn’t all about the money. Hill was an old-fashioned liberal and feminist, whose values were shaped in the sixties and seventies. Her work was always somehow grounded in the improvement of society, an ethic instilled in her by old-fashioned, hard-working Norwegian parents who lived with and cared for their aged parents and a disabled aunt.

“My mom drove a school bus for disabled children and my best friend had cerebral palsy and was in a wheel chair. I got to deeply value disabled people as who they really are inside. As a child welfare worker, my first job out of college, I began trying to move handicapped children out of hospitals and to advocate for them being part of society,” she said.

Hill’s life mission shaped itself around getting people out of institutional settings and into the mainstream. As a social worker in the 1970s, she did just that with veterans, then, through the 1980s, as regional manager for State Senior Services, got to see the hopelessness of nursing home residents – and started doing something to phase them out.

She pioneered the federally-funded “Oregon Model for Long-Term Care” – moving seniors to community-based settings, such as adult foster care and assisted living facilities. The model was the centerpiece for a White House Conference on Aging and was adopted by dozens of other states.

By now, Hill was one of Oregon’s leading gerontologists, serving on state councils on aging, the city senior program, human services advisory commissions – even a board bringing top entertainment acts to nursing homes. She’d created radio and tv shows on women and the aged and been the first woman to run for mayor of Ashland. She had clout, credibility and could get things done.

In 1989, Hill was getting ready for the big leap into building a senior community. Two things pushed her over the line. A seminar on the power of change at her state jobsite (“I realized in the processes and games that I was the only one there who loved change and risk”) and the offering of the perfect 16-acre piece of rural property with smashing views, just on the outskirts of Ashland.

Hill’s vision of her senior community was now in place. It would -- in keeping with her philosophy of maximum freedom and choice for seniors -- be a community with no big buy-in fee, where you own a condo or single-family home and keep all your equity, to pass on to your children.

It would be a community of active, mentally alive older people who didn’t care for rocking chairs. As it turned out, 80 percent have college degrees. It would be “aging in place,” meaning if you became more feeble, you would move into assisted living, but still staying in the same community, near your spouse and friends.

All homes would be single-level, step-free, fall-resistant dwellings and if they were on a second story it would be accessed by elevator. Homes would be senior-friendly throughout – plugins elevated, bathrooms with turnaround space, dishwasher up high, faucets with big handles, lots of windows and lights so you have no dark corners.

It would have a central clubhouse and dining hall, where you go (or have meals delivered to you) as you please, paying only for what you use. No three-meals-a-day, one-size-fits-all institutional drill.

Politically, the community would be a liberated zone – Hill would buy and sell the homes and condos, but Mountain Meadows would be governed by elected members of the homeowners association.

Now, all Hill needed was money. She sold a historic home she’d bought the year before, making $50,000 and using the little known (“People hate reading federal tax regulations, but I was a bureaucrat and was used to it.”) tax-deferred exchange, which basically lets you skip the income tax on the earnings all your life.

The bare land was $125,000. She’d been reading a book called “How to Develop Property With No Money” and gleaned the notion of offering the $50,000 down and the rest in six years. If she defaulted, the seller could keep the 50k.

“My realtor laughed and said I was nuts. No one would accept an offer like that. I went to the seller with my resume and references and told her my vision. She said yes. We were off. It was a huge step. I was absolutely terrified.”

Hill, by then a licensed realtor, knew real estate and she knew city politics. But she didn’t know land development or building. She needed a partner. She took on Larry Medinger, a former city planning commission member who’d built several successful subdivisions. The partnership, a 50-50 deal, worked and Medinger drew architectural style from Craftsman homes – a tradition comforting to seniors -- in his hometown in Nebraska.

Money came from local friends who wanted to invest in something positive and nearby, Hill said, and from her savings and income selling real estate (and her husband’s job). A local bank provided the first construction loan for single-family homes, with all proceeds rolled back into the next homes, as well as development of common spaces – walks, parks, ponds, garden – and, eventually the large clubhouse and spa.

“There was nothing like Mountain Meadows in Oregon,” she said. “We had to look outside for expertise about how to do this. We went to the National Council on Senior Housing Convention and spent the day with architects brainstorming about how to lay out the community.

“We chose the architect with the best ideas and site design (Mithune Partners, Seattle). We went on to assemble a great team -- the best lawyers, accountants, surveyors, engineers and landscape architects. We wanted quality in everything and it came back to us tenfold.”

The community has picked up a slew of awards, including Best Small Active Adult Retirement Community in America (from the National Council on Seniors’ Housing), 100 Best Master-Planned Communities (from Where to Retire Magazine), Best Senior Housing Gold Nugget Grand Award (from Pacific Coast Builders Conference) and Community Development Award (from Jackson County Citizens League).

The community – 65 free-standing homes and 160 condos, all housing 225 people – has one more building to go, probably rental apartments for seniors who don’t want the hassle of owning property or are checking out the town for possible later purchase.

Turning the place over to the residents? “It seemed like the right thing to do,” said Hill. “It has lowered the monthly fees (maintenance, meals, fitness center, etc.) by $150 and it’s created a self-sustaining community. They adjust fees to meet their needs, not mine. And they make their own decisions without some corporation dictating to them.”

Now Madeline, a resident of Mountain Meadows, just makes her living selling the remaining condos. She won’t realize her profit until the last few are sold.

“I thought is would be kind of small when we started but it ended up costing much more, taking much longer and being much bigger than I ever dreamed. If I had it to do over again I’d get partners with money. We’ve had to spend so much on financing, the profit could turn out to be small. But the values – that was the primary thing to me, and we’ve been able to stick by the values.”

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John Darling
John Darling

Freelance writer living in Ashland Ore.

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