Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Senior Housing Policy: "Tomorrow Is Another Day"

By Sandra Rosenblith, Director, Stand Up for Rural America

Do you follow media coverage of national officials and policy makers dealing with an issue you know? Lots of folks in Washington, DC get paid to do this. Way too often we wind up wondering: "What are these people thinking? Don't they know ....?"

I'm an Inside the Beltway veteran. I’ve got decades of experience helping local nonprofits across the country mount comprehensive efforts to create healthy, prosperous, equitable communities that stand the test of time. They have developed tens of thousands of affordable homes and apartments. In recent years, most of my work has taken me to rural America.

Along with my smart, engaged 90 year old mother, I’m increasingly distressed by the country’s failure to confront reality when it comes to adequate affordable housing for our aging population, many of whom do and will need it. Like it or not, 76 million Baby Boomers are coming! Every day this year and for the next 19 years, 10,000 Americans will turn 65. By 2020, there will be 10.2 million new households headed by individuals aged 55 to 74. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. By 2050, nearly five percent of us will be 90 or older.

A tenant tends her plot at Desert Gardens, the first affordable apartments ever built for retired farmworkers, developed by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition in Indio, CA.

Seniors aren't all rich or even financially comfortable. An Urban Institute study shows that in 2009, 34 percent, or one in three seniors, were poor or near poor. That's more than 13 million seniors. According to federal standards, housing is affordable when it costs 30 percent or less of income. Using this standard and the 2011 poverty line, a single poor senior should pay $361 or less per month. Are there many ‘decent homes in a suitable environment’ at this price where you live?

The Great Recession took and continues to take a heavy toll on older Americans. Retirement accounts have recovered some, but these shrank by 20 to 30 percent. Seventy percent of seniors own their own homes; about one in five owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. It's no accident that Florida and Nevada, retirement meccas, are ground zero for foreclosures.

Even when foreclosure isn't the issue, many seniors are trapped in homes they can't afford. They can't refinance or renovate because they can’t get loans. They can’t sell because buyers can't meet newly stringent credit criteria and appraisal standards. The rental market has tightened and rents are rising. Unemployment for workers 55 and more is usually lower than the rates for the rest of the workforce. While this is still true, rates for this group have doubled and it takes over 55s more time to find new jobs than other workers. Also, pension benefits are declining or disappearing.

Yet senior housing barely gets a mention, much less serious consideration, in high level discussions about the deficit. It's all about cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Where are seniors supposed to live? What is it going to cost? Who is going to make it happen? You can bet your bottom dollar that the for-profit private sector isn't going to meet the housing needs of poor and near poor seniors absent significant public incentives and subsidies.

This oncoming train wreck will damage rural people and places most. The proportion of seniors in the population is higher in rural than urban areas. It is growing due to an influx of retirees, many of whom are seeking lower cost living. Incomes are low and so are wages. More rural than urban seniors depend on Social Security and food stamps for their livelihoods. The supply of appropriate affordable housing falls far short. Rural seniors have a hard time ‘aging in place’, meaning ‘staying’ in their homes. More of their homes are isolated. Public transportation is sketchy or nonexistent. So service delivery is a bigger problem, everything from medical care to meals on wheels. Younger family members are often away in cities seeking better opportunities.

Do you ever wonder why people in Washington go around in circles? One big reason? They don't ask the rest of America for advice on their communities’ priority needs and how these can best be met. They don’t invest in the people’s ideas. There are literally thousands of nonprofit community developers and service providers ready, willing and able to tackle senior housing issues. Many have already proven what works in their communities. They pursue innovative solutions. But no-one calls, writes or sends money. Do you think we can do anything about this situation? After all, sooner or later, we hope that we all need senior housing.

Sandra (Sandy) Rosenblith, a lawyer, has worked for and with community-based developers across this country, delivering information, training, technical assistance and advocacy support and providing and monitoring grants, low cost loans and access to equity capital. She has also worked for every level of government as well as major foundations, including a federal stint helping draft the original Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations. Of special note, she founded and managed the national Rural and Mid-South Delta programs for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Currently, she directs Stand Up for Rural America, an advocacy initiative designed to help rural community developers gain the attention, resources and policy support their work deserves.


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