Seniors get a safe haven in Salem’s new affordable cottage community

Since moving to Salem two decades ago, Eunice Brown has spent much of her time helping others. Now, the community is finally giving back.

Brown will be among the first residents to move into Cottages United, an affordable housing community for seniors over age 55 who live on a fixed income. United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley hosted a grand opening ceremony Thursday for phase one of the project which features 10, one-bedroom cottage-style homes renting for $500 a month.

Future phases will add 15 additional cottages.

Brown worked at the state Department of Human Services, fostered children and said she still feeds hungry people in the community. She said her limited income meant she had to move in with her son. She’s looking forward to moving out.

“I can go when I want, do what I want, in my own space,” she said. 

The project aims to help fill a housing gap for a population at high risk of homelessness, who often spend more than a third of their income on rent, said United Way CEO Rhonda Wolf during the ceremony.

“This is five years of a dream come true,” Wolf said.

Cottages United celebrated the opening of its first ten units on May 30, 2024 (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Its location on Northeast Aguilas Court, just paces away from Swegle Elementary School, also brings opportunities to build an inter-generational community.

The opening ceremony included a performance of “This Little Light of Mine” by the school’s first grade music class. Each new tenant will be greeted by student art in their kitchens upon arrival. 

Brown said she loves having the elementary school kids nearby. Recess was happening during the ceremony, which gave the speeches a backtrack of kids’ laughter and games. 

“It’s company, to me,” Brown said.

Some residents have grandchildren attending the school, and others are planning to volunteer there to read books, said Melinda Freshour, United Way’s Community Relations Director.

Eunice Brown will be one of the first residents to move in to Cottages United, and said she’s looking forward to having her own space (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

The project took five years, and broke ground in September. Freshour said that she was inspired to kick it into gear after befriending a man named Roy, who was seeking assistance after rental costs for the land he and his wife’s mobile home sat on kept increasing. His wife started working at McDonald’s in her 80s to make ends meet, and ended up dying of Covid.

“Roy became family to me. And so I went to our affordable housing committee and said ‘we need to speed this project up,’” Freshour said. She reached out to Roy’s property manager to share the news about the project moving along.

“I wanted him to know: here we are, we’re breaking ground. Hold on a little bit longer,” she said. But she was informed Roy had already died.

“That, to me, was the moment that I thought we just have to do this. We can’t slow down, we can’t stall out, whatever it takes,” she said. “For me, in my heart, this is truly dedicated to Roy.”

United Way purchased the parcels from the city for $60 in May 2021. Mayor Chris Hoy and City Manager Keith Stahley were present at the ceremony, along with some city councilors. 

The next two phases are “shovel ready,” Freshour said, and construction will begin as soon as United Way raises $1 million to cover building costs. The two final phases will cost a total of $2 million. The organization is looking into public and private funding, and continuing to seek donations. WestPeak Construction will lead the build. 

This weekend, the first residents will move in, to be greeted with a full fridge, stove, washer and dryer. Each unit has a full bathtub, and accessibility accommodations upon request.

Friends Esther Salazar and Cheryl Greenlee asked Freshour if they could have cottages next door to each other.

The two met in church, and both of them had been living with their children.

“I was living in my granddaughter’s bedroom, because I had nowhere to live,” Salazar said, with four generations of her family in one house. “But I knew it was temporary.”

Greenlee had been trying to find housing for three years. She found out about the cottages opportunity on Nextdoor, and asked Salazar to use her computer skills to figure out if it was real, and to follow up. They connected with Freshour for an interview.

Both of them are looking forward to cooking in their new kitchens. Greenlee said she’s especially excited to have her own refrigerator that she doesn’t have to share.

“Having Esther here is kind of like my anchor,” Greenlee said. “And Melinda (Freshour) is an anchor, as well. She’s been very responsive, and extremely caring and helpful in every aspect, and every step of the way.”

After posing for a photo for Salem Reporter, Greenlee leaned over to cry on Salazar’s shoulder. 

Freshour said that, as of Thursday, over 150 people are on the waitlist. 

Cheryl Greenlee, left, and Esther Salazar, are friends who met in church. They plan to move in the weekend of May 30, and asked to be cottage neighbors (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)
Rhonda Wolf, CEO of United Way of the Mid-WIllamette Valley, cuts the ribbon to celebrate the opening of the Cottages United project on May 30, 2024 (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)
Rhonda Wolf, CEO of United Way of the Mid-WIllamette Valley, speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Cottages United project on May 30, 2024 (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.