ECS’s existing senior housing properties are, from left: The Canterbury in Palos Verdes Estates; The Covington in Aliso Viejo; Monte Cedro in Altadena; and Twelve Oaks in Glendale. Photos: ECS

Deaconess Sophie Miller

[The Episcopal News] Episcopal Communities and Services for Seniors (ECS) began more than a century ago as a vision in the heart and mind of Deaconess Sophie Miller, who identified a need for housing for clergy widows.

Miller raised funds with dime coin cards, her efforts eventually culminating in the 1923 opening of the Episcopal Home for the Aged in Alhambra with 23 residents. In the following decades the home for clergy widows became a residence for senior Episcopalians of all kinds and The Episcopal Home (renamed The Kensington in the 1980s), evolved into Episcopal Home Communities. In 2011 it was reorganized as ECS, with a broad mandate to meet the housing, medical and social needs of senior citizens.

Miller had “identified this need that had to be met and if the church didn’t meet it, no one would,” said Bishop John Harvey Taylor, in a video series commemorating ECS’ 100th anniversary.

The video was part of a multi-media centennial celebration held at several luxury ECS senior properties, including the Covington in Aliso Viejo, the Canterbury in Rancho Palos Verdes, MonteCedro in Altadena, and the more moderately priced Twelve Oaks in Glendale, according to Krista Nay, ECS vice president of sales and marketing.

As the agency begins a second century, services have changed dramatically but the need remains, Nay said. ECS, a nonprofit diocesan affiliate agency, has embarked on an ambitious partnership with Taylor to build affordable senior housing to help alleviate the chronic homelessness that has plagued Southern California.

“There are about 81,000 people right now living on the streets in Orange and Los Angeles counties,” said Taylor, who has pledged to develop affordable housing on 25% of the diocese’s church and ministry center campuses.

As the partnership has developed, “it has been a revelation to watch the prophetic hearts on the ECS board and ECS staff begin to envision what its mission is in the 21st century in a region where affordable housing is once again a crisis, as it was when Sophie Miller first had her vision of creating the home for the aged,” Taylor said in the video.

“I’m confident that in the next five to 10 years between 3,000 and 5,000 of our neighbors will have places to lay their heads, which don’t exist today.”

Nearly completed, the 65-unit Santa Angelina Apartments at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Placentia, will house seniors; 21 units are reserved for those who have been homeless. Photo: Wayne Kawamoto

ECS’s ‘housing czar’

Taylor’s initiative “is the most exciting thing that speaks directly to Sophie Miller and her goal,” according to ECS Board President Cathy May. “We’re at a stage in our society where the need couldn’t be greater. We’re all aging at various economic levels, and we need to be providing housing at these various levels.”

ECS helps facilitate relationships among church leadership and developers, and city officials, a role assumed by the Rev. Michael Bell, dubbed the “housing czar” by Taylor. In July, Bell was appointed ECS director of housing and business development, a newly created position.

The benefits are two-fold, aiding both community and church sustainability, May said. For example, in Placentia, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament’s 65-unit Santa Angelina apartment homes are expected to be completed in January 2024. At least 21 apartments will be designated for seniors experiencing homelessness. Through ECS, National CORE, a well-known affordable housing developer, oversaw construction and will manage the property, provide services to residents, and also lease the land from the church.

Sharon Pewtress, vice president of strategic growth and business development at Episcopal Communities and Services (ECS) and Michael Bell, newly named director of housing and business development, are pictured at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Photo: John Taylor

National CORE and ECS for Seniors also broke ground August 15 for the Orchard View Gardens, a $22-million senior affordable housing community at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Buena Park, expected to be completed in late 2024. The project will transform 1.76 acres of underutilized church land into a 66-apartment community for seniors aged 62 and over who earn less than 60% of the area median income. Eight units will be reserved for seniors who have experienced homelessness.

Bell told The Episcopal News in a recent telephone interview that he is currently exploring the possibility of affordable housing projects with at least five congregations, including All Saints, Pasadena; St. Luke’s, Fontana; St. Paul’s, Lancaster; St. Michael’s, Corona del Mar; and St. Ambrose, Claremont.

“Many others are interested,” he added. “Part of my role is to facilitate these projects by connecting interested people to each other to move the projects along,” including through diocesan channels such as the Corporation of the Diocese and the Standing Committee. The entire process, from concept to occupancy, averages about five years, he said.

He noted the March 2023 completion and occupancy of St. Michael’s Apartments at the St. Michael’s Outreach Mission Center in Riverside, predating his tenure. At least 24 of the 50 apartments are designated for those experiencing homelessness. Residents are also provided supportive social services.

Another project, St. Michael’s, Anaheim, is currently under development, and is being facilitated by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, vicar of St. James’ Church in Newport Beach, he said.

Additionally, Charlie Rahilly, ECS senior vice president of finance, said the nonprofit agency anticipates spending about $250 million over the next five years on redeveloping and refurbishing existing luxury senior housing, including the Covington and the Canterbury. There are plans to expand the MonteCedro by about 40 units and to redevelop Twelve Oaks in Glendale.

ECS staff, along with Bishop Taylor, clergy and city officials and other partners, break ground for Orchard View Gardens apartments at St. Joseph’s Church, Buena Park, on Aug. 15, 2023. Photo: Janet Kawamoto

Many of the improvements are the result of resident input, Rahilly said.

Bell and others say Miller’s legacy lives on. “If we do this well, we are making a profound difference in the lives of those we will house, just like our ancestors, Sophie Miller and others, looked around and garnered resources toward needs that they saw,” Bell said.

“We’ve become the beneficiary of those efforts in our day. We have the opportunity to discern how to wisely leverage the assets we have – in this case, church property – to not only serve our neighbors in need right now, but also to develop assets that can help our grandchildren address the ministries of their day 100 years from now.”

Ginnie Somerville, a 14-year resident of the Covington, says Miller’s legacy spurred her to active participation on the Aliso Viejo community’s board, as well as contributing to residents’ quality of life.

“When I moved in, I got a real sense of how important it was to support the efforts of someone like Sophie Miller,” she said.

Because of Miller’s spirit, “I’m not ready to sit down yet,” said Somerville, 87, who has organized talent shows and musical follies, noting that the community “has a wonderful welcome and attracts a lot of wonderful people.

“There’s a camaraderie that exists among our residents,” she added. “A lot of people say they’ve visited three or four other places but came away with the feeling that this is for them.”