Metro

Care worker digs: A nursing home owner on the Cape offers housing to his employees

Broad Reach care worker Luis Montalvo, from Puerto Rico, in his room at the group home in Brewster.
John Tlumacki
Broad Reach care worker Luis Montalvo, from Puerto Rico, in his room at the group home in Brewster.

CHATHAM — Struggling to find workers for his nursing home and assisted living center in this seaside tourist town, Bill Bogdanovich tried a new strategy: Buying properties on the southeastern elbow of Cape Cod to rent to employees.

He offered below-market rents to workers, many recruited from off the Cape and as far away as Puerto Rico, who were having trouble finding places to live. He also allowed them to spread the cost of higher winter heating bills over 12 months.

A year later, his gambit appears to have paid off: Bogdanovich has been able to hire and retain more workers — the better for his senior housing residents, and for business.

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“Having this housing available nearby makes working here that much more doable for many of our people,” said Bogdanovich, 54, chief executive of Broad Reach Healthcare.

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Bogdanovich’s workforce housing initiative is a novel response to the labor shortage dogging many service businesses in a hot Massachusetts economy. Companies are competing for employees who, in turn, are scrambling to find affordable rents within commuting distance of jobs. The problem is especially acute on the Cape, where year-round rentals are scarce.

About a dozen workers who feed, bathe, and dress older residents at the company’s Liberty Commons Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center and Victorian Assisted Living Residence have taken advantage of the housing offer.

The arrangement can seem like a throwback to the company town of an earlier era. But so far, it seems to work for all parties. Broad Reach’s vacancy rate for front-line care workers known as certified nursing assistants has dropped to 8 percent, compared to a statewide rate of more than 17 percent and nearly 20 percent in Barnstable County, according to the latest employment survey of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association. It’s also meant less disruption for the 172 residents of the company’s two senior living centers — and for the workers themselves.

“Living here saves me gas, time, and rent money,” said Nick Burrill, 35, a certified nursing assistant at Liberty Commons who recently moved into a Broad Reach-owned group home in neighboring Brewster from an apartment he rented in Sagamore, on the other side of the Cape Cod Canal. “I haven’t been able to save like this since I was in high school.”

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On a rainy afternoon last week, Edgar Collazo, 33, and Luz Centeno, 36, were making turkey sandwiches in the tiny kitchen of the apartment they share at a Broad Reach property in West Chatham before dashing off to work at Liberty Commons, 2 miles away. The couple previously lived with four of their coworkers in the Brewster group home.

“It was a little chaotic at times, but you couldn’t beat the rent,” said Collazo, dressed in blue medical scrubs. He is training to be a certified nursing assistant, the same job Centeno holds. “We just got to the point where we felt it was time for us to have our own space.”

A current resident of the Brewster home, Luis Montalvo, 21, moved to the Cape a year ago from his native Puerto Rico, where he endured months of power outages in his village outside San Juan in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. He plays video games in his down time, and takes the comings and goings in the group home in stride. He recently helped recruit a friend from the island, Felix Feliciano, to take a job at Broad Reach and move into the home.

While they sometimes watch television together or barbecue on the deck, the Brewster tenants are constantly heading off to — or returning from — the nursing home. Some, like Montalvo and Burrill, volunteer for overtime, often staying for overnight shifts after their dayside duties.

“We mostly see each other at work,” Montalvo said. “We’re all there 3 to 11.”

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Bogdanovich never aspired to being a landlord. He embarked on the venture after setting up a fund to make small loans to employees who ran into financial difficulty, an idea he borrowed from Sister Jacquelyn McCarthy, director of Bethany Health Care Center in Framingham. “People were coming [for loans] most often because of their housing situation,” he said.

The first rental property he purchased, in the summer of 2018, was the Brewster home, a split-level, six-bedroom house on a wooded residential street. Then he bought a two-story, six-bedroom apartment building in West Chatham.

After that, he acquired a second apartment building with eight units behind the Broad Reach campus. He’s now looking at a fourth property.

The apartments still house mostly non-employee tenants with existing leases. But over time, Bogdanovich plans to increase the number available to his staff. His aim is to run the properties on a break-even basis, keeping rents high enough that he can cover the mortgages on his bank loans, but low enough that workers can afford them. The properties are also an investment.

“Owning real estate in Chatham decreases the risk,” Bogdanovich said.

Lack of affordable housing has become an obstacle for nearly all service employers on Cape Cod, including many hotels and restaurants that do most of their business in the summer, said Alisa Magnotta, chief executive of Housing Assistance Corp., a nonprofit based in Hyannis that has been lobbying towns on the Cape to allow construction of more apartments.

“A healthy rental market should have a 5 to 7 percentvacancy rate. We have less than 1 percent on the Cape,” said Magnotta, who applauded Broad Reach for its creative approach to recruiting and retaining employees. “We are a year-round, service-based economy, but we need workers to sustain that. And they don’t have a place to live. If someone’s couch surfing and house hunting, they’re not going to be engaged in their work.”

Nursing homes in vacation towns on the Cape have to vie for workers not only with one another but with seasonal employers that dangle higher wages in the summer. Like their counterparts across Massachusetts, the nursing homes also face chronic underfunding from MassHealth, the state Medicaid program, which pays for more than two-thirds of the state’s nursing home residents.

The federal immigration crackdown, meanwhile, has made it tougher to recruit from a pool of foreign-born workers that’s been a reliable source of labor in nursing homes. The expiration of so-called temporary protected status for care workers from Haiti and other countries has sent Massachusetts nursing home owners searching for employees elsewhere.

Bogdanovich recently visited Puerto Rico with another owner, Frank Romano, chief executive of Rowley-based Essex Group Management, which owns a half dozen nursing homes and two assisted-living residences in Massachusetts. Because it’s an unincorporated US territory, said Bogdanovich, “there’s no immigration issue” bringing in Puerto Rican workers.

As the owner of an independent senior care company in a market increasingly dominated by larger chains, Bogdanovich prides himself as being “distinctly not-corporate.” The lack of bureaucracy, he said, allows him to try a fresh approach to easing the labor crunch.

“We’re not going to solve everyone’s housing problems, but if we can make some people’s rents more manageable, it’s a start,” he said. “And it make us more competitive.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.