Mission: Possible UCH Affordable Housing Leaders Fighting the Good Fight

Karen, now 68, applied for housing at three senior living communities and was placed on years-long waiting lists like many others due to a nationwide shortage of affordable housing for older adults. Pickfair Square, a United Church Homes community funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Pickerington, a Columbus suburb, was the first to offer her a one-bedroom apartment that allowed her to move out of a home she shared with a friend with five children. “I didn’t realize it would be that hard to get into a place. The new (apartments) they’re building now are for people with a lot of income. No matter where you call, there’s a waiting list (at HUD communities),” Karen said.

‘Funding has dried up’

Funding for HUD’s senior housing program that pays for new construction of affordable housing was eliminated in 2011. Thus, few new affordable rental units have been built since 2012. The lack of federal funds for HUD’s Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program, which helps nonprofit organizations pay for new construction, comes during a time when the number of adults aged 65 and older is growing, the need for affordable housing is rising, and the number of seniors who are homeless is expected to double by 2050. Nationwide, there are 200,000 people waiting for affordable housing or about 10 low-income seniors on waiting lists for every affordable housing unit, according to a study by AARP.

“As the population ages and the number of seniors expand, we have not simultaneously expanded the number of homes for seniors. Funding has dried up,” said Linda Couch, vice president of housing policy at LeadingAge, which represents more than 6,000 nonprofit organizations dedicated to aging services.

United Church Homes leaders, including President and CEO Rev. Kenneth Daniel, recently went to Washington, D.C., to ask Ohio representatives to preserve or increase funding for senior housing programs in the 2018 budget, including money for new construction and repairs for existing housing communities. But housing for seniors doesn’t appear to be a priority in the upcoming budget.

New federal money doubtful

United Church Homes, a nonprofit, faith-based organization based in Marion, Ohio, owns or manages 58 HUD communities that serve about 2,700 residents. These communities have Project Rental Assistance Contracts (PRAC) or Project-based Section 8 Housing Assistance Payment contracts, which cover the difference between the HUD-approved operating expenses for a property and the amount tenants with very low incomes pay in rent. Pickfair currently has 110 seniors on a waiting list for 33 apartments. Canal Village and nearby David’s Way, both UCH communities, have a total of 91 apartments and 136 seniors on their waiting lists, according to Brenda Swiger, housing manager for both communities. Brenda said seniors on the lists will likely wait 18 months to two years for an apartment.

Waiting lists for affordable senior housing will likely grow longer.

HUD is potentially facing a 14 percent drop in federal funding, to $40.8 billion, per documents recently released by the Trump administration. The possible cuts include a $42 million cut to the $505 million budget for the Section 202’s PRAC, and hundreds of millions in cuts to public housing and Section 8 assistance. “HUD cannot absorb a 14 percent or more reduction below its necessary funding level for fiscal year 2018 without seriously threatening the housing assistance its programs currently provide to 1.6 million seniors,” Linda said. LeadingAge projects nearly 23,500 older adult households with average annual incomes of just more than $13,000 will lose their Section 202 Housing for the Elderly rental assistance and 360 service coordinators will lose their jobs if potential budget cuts are approved. Linda said any cuts to HUD’s programs would be “devastating.”

“Because funding for HUD’s housing programs pays to keep currently assisted seniors in their affordable homes, budget cuts threaten seniors’ abilities to stay in their homes. And, because funding for HUD’s block grant programs provide financing for new affordable housing, cuts to these programs will mean less affordable housing will be built,” Linda said. HUD currently has 5 million affordable rental homes, including 1.6 million units that are senior households, Linda said. HUD spokesman Jerry Brown declined to discuss the impact of possible cuts. “The budget is in a state of flux. We’re waiting to see what the final budget will be,” he said.

United Church Homes wants to do what it can to prevent cuts or preserve existing funding for affordable housing for seniors.

“The need for affordable housing for seniors is tremendous. The number of seniors is growing fast, while new construction has remained relatively stagnant, which strains the existing housing stock,” Rev. Daniel said.

“Any cuts would hurt seniors and nonprofit organizations like ours whose mission it is to provide housing to older adults and provide abundant life to seniors as they age.”

Housing managers advocate for seniors

Cheryl Wickersham, vice president of Housing Services for United Church Homes, and UCH housing managers are advocates for the organization’s residents and fight to increase or keep existing funding by sharing with government officials how significant changes in funding affect the lives of UCH residents. “Where would our residents be if it wasn’t for rental assistance, our communities, and our service coordinators? How many would be homeless, or living with their children or grandchildren? We’ll pass those stories on to LeadingAge, who is a partner in UCH’s advocacy efforts” Cheryl said.

Cheryl recently went to Washington, D.C., and asked Ohio representatives to preserve PRAC. She said if the potential cuts to PRAC are approved, they would be “challenging to most UCH (PRAC-funded) communities. For a couple of small communities, it would be devastating.” But she’s doubtful significant cuts will occur. “That’s like taking away Social Security. It’s not going to happen. I don’t think they’ll eliminate the subsidy,” Cheryl said. Current PRAC funding represents only a small percentage of the federal budget. “Proposed cuts may save several million a year, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to other federal spending,” Cheryl said. She speculated the cuts could force communities that are already short staffed to reduce employee hours. “I can’t shut the lights off and I can’t reduce real estate taxes. We’re doing everything from operating the building to advocating for them,” Cheryl said.

Regardless of the potential cuts, Cheryl and Regional Housing Managers Marsha Crewe, Bertha Garrett-Frazier, and Don Smith, Facilities Manager Pat Morrell, and Housing Services Administrative Assistant Dawn Boyd (all featured on the cover), along with the housing managers, service coordinators, and maintenance staff, will do everything they can to keep residents in their homes. “We will find a way. That’s why we’re here. We’re not going to abandon 2,700 residents. It will just make life more challenging.”

Silver boom

The demand for affordable housing for older adults will only intensify. In the 2000’s, the number of available housing units was greatly reduced, and 2010 was the last year any funding for subsidized rental units went to new construction. “Affordable housing is still being developed, but project-based, the very poor can’t afford to live in them. In addition to funding additional units, we need to preserve the communities we have,” Cheryl said.

The oldest UCH HUD community is 30 years old and the oldest HUD community the organization manages is 38. Cheryl said the older population is growing fast and vulnerable seniors are hurt by the lack of affordable housing stock that comes with added services to meet their needs as they age. An average of 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. By 2035, the number of older adults is expected to grow from 48 million to 79 million, and the number of households headed by someone 65 and older will increase by 66 percent, to nearly 50 million by 2035, according to a recent study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

“The need is phenomenal,” Cheryl said.

Nationwide, the median costs for “facility-level care” range from $46,300 for an assisted living community to $92,400 for a private room in a skilled nursing community, according to the Genworth Cost of Care survey. But on average, seniors who receive assistance from HUD’s Section 202 Housing for Elderly Residents program earn about $13,311, pay $297 in rent, and receive an average monthly subsidy of $364, per LeadingAge. These seniors also spend more than half of their earnings paying rent.

“With the money left over, many must choose between buying food, prescriptions, and heating and air conditioning (bills),” Linda said. “The rent eats first.”

‘Blessed’ to find housing

Barbara Cain, a service coordinator at Sterling Place, a United Church Homes community in Lakeland, Florida, said older adults in need are unaware how difficult it is to find affordable housing and often wait too long to apply for an apartment. Barbara said many are surprised to learn apartments are full. “They’re used to rental apartments and (moving in quickly). With affordable housing, you don’t have that luxury. A lot of them wait until they’re in a dire situation and they’re sleeping in their car,” Barbara said. “There’s really nothing we can do. We try to give them the resources we can. We do the best we can, but they just have to wait and that’s frustrating.”

Barbara Garcia, 74, lived in a shack that was considered a chicken coop and paid $50 per month for three years before she found housing at Cypress Run, a UCH property in Immokalee, Florida, in 2004. She was on a year-long waiting list before an apartment opened at Cypress Run. “I thought I would have to wait forever. It just knocked my socks off it was so soon,” Barbara said. After an investigation, the shack she lived in was condemned by the city. “I’m blessed God gave me an apartment to spend my last days. There are people sleeping under bridges, in cardboard boxes just to survive. I cried when I moved into my apartment,” Barbara said.

Ruby Hanson, 89, a retired supervisor at Boeing, has been on a waiting list for an apartment at Canal Village in Canal Winchester, Ohio, since April 2016.

Ruby had an apartment there before, but decided to leave and move in with her son. “All I was doing was sitting in my room. That’s not me. I’m trying to get back,” Ruby said. Ruby’s need for affordable housing comes just a few years after she and her husband sold their suburban home. Her husband, who passed away nearly three years ago, moved into Canal Village first and Ruby followed. “We were living in a house in Reynoldsburg. I never thought housing would be an issue. We were doing fine. We were getting along fine,” said Ruby, who moved out of her son’s home and now lives with her daughter.

Atlee Wariboko, 70, lost his job and was facing homelessness before he moved into Sterling Place in Lakeland, Florida, in 2014. Atlee, a former business owner in Nigeria, was earning about $100 a month for landscape work he did at a friend’s home where he lived for three years. He was given one day to move out. “The situation was desperate,” Atlee said. It took just a week to get into an apartment thanks to the help of a local pastor and apartment staff. After being denied Social Supplemental Security Income in 2013, he was also approved for SSI with the help of a service coordinator at Sterling Place.

“I didn’t know about places like this. This place took me in and gave me $50 a month. It blew my mind. I thought I was going to be homeless. It was a hard situation for me. Very hard,” Atlee said. “It was a big-time blessing.”

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