Aging brings change, but not all of it is rosy. A crisis for the ever-increasing, diverse population of senior citizens exists in the United States: a shortage of affordable housing.
According to a 2014 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, 10,000 people turn 65 each day. By 2035, low-income seniors may be using more than half of their income for housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that nine senior citizens are waiting for each available affordable housing unit.
Many United Church of Christ-related ministries are rising to the challenge, providing and advocating for the affordable housing and health care needs of older adults. At times, it seems overwhelming. The Rev. Dr. Laverne R. Joseph, president and CEO of the UCC-related Retirement Housing Foundation based in Long Beach, Calif., says RHF currently has 23,000 applications nationwide for its 185 communities.
“When we opened a 60-apartment, low-income family community in Los Angeles, we had 1,600 families that applied,” he said. “When we opened the waiting list for Angelus Plaza [the largest low-income senior housing community in the country] at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, people started lining up at 7 p.m. Sunday night.”
Susan Sinderson, executive vice president of UCC-related Embrace Living Communities, says more than 4,000 people are on the waiting lists for housing in its Illinois communities. “Our seniors tend to stay in their apartments … unless there is absolutely no way for them to continue to live on their own,” she says. “They really don’t have many choices. There are fewer and fewer nursing homes that accept Medicaid in Illinois, and this is the only way they could afford nursing home care.”
But it’s not just about keeping roofs overhead. The Harvard study showed that a lack of affordable and safe housing for seniors affects their overall physical and spiritual health. Low-income older adults are forced to make daily trade-offs in favor of rent and mortgage payments: food, transportation and medical care often fall by the wayside as they become more isolated.
“Many people think housing is only about shelter –– which is important –– but the more critical link is the impact that having safe, affordable housing has on a person’s health and well-being,” says Lee Syria, president and CEO Lee Syria of United Church Homes and Services in Newton, N.C.
The Harvard report also found a lack of integration between housing and health care, which contributes to many older adults losing their independence. UCC-related ministries for older adults try to bridge that gap.
“We don’t just provide apartments,” says the Rev. Kenneth Daniel, president and CEO of United Church Homes, based in Marion, Ohio. “We provide support services so residents can access community services to help them stay in their apartments.”
Don’t Wait: Advocate
Leaders of the UCC’s CHHSM-member ministries point to a continuing need for churches and faith-based nonprofits to advocate for the housing needs of older adults, particularly in light of a potential $6 billion budget cut to HUD being considered by the current White House Administration.
“Those cuts would affect the operating subsidies that our residents count on,” says Daniel. “None pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. HUD subsidizes the rest. These are among the poorest and most vulnerable elders who count on us for housing that is safe, secure, and affordable.” The cuts, he says, would undermine UCH’s ability to support its residents.
The potential HUD budget cuts are in addition to the elimination of its capital advance program. In 2012, “Congress eliminated the [HUD] Section 202 Capital Advance program that was used to fund the development of new, affordable housing for seniors with extremely low incomes,” says Sinderson. “No other program is available to build new housing for this population.”
The 202 grants also helped existing communities repair their current properties. Joseph says reinstating the HUD 202 program is a must, as is the continuation of the tax credit program for constructing new affordable housing.
“We need to continually advocate for the needs of seniors,” Syria adds.
LeadingAge in Advocacy
Many CHHSM-member ministries are part of LeadingAge, an advocacy association of community-based, nonprofit organizations “dedicated to making America a better place to grow old.” At its March meeting in Washington, D.C., LeadingAge sent health care leaders to the Hill to advocate for affordable housing to Congressional representatives.
RHF’s Joseph spoke to Congressional staffers about the need for affordable housing and lack of new HUD 202 construction awards. “In every case, they understood and said they supported the program. But that has always been the case, … [with] no action to follow up on the words,” he says wryly.
Daniel, who met with Ohio representatives, focused on three areas: Medicaid, regulatory relief for nursing homes, and the proposed funding cuts to HUD.
“We are concerned about the proposed shift of funding for Medicaid from the federal government,” Daniel says. “Changing this to a per capita limit –– or block granting –– shifts the financial cost back to the states. Not all states have the funding to keep the current level of services.”
The hope is that national and local advocacy will educate legislators on the facts surrounding affordable senior housing, “the growing need, the statistics on how affordable housing saves money in the big picture … the need to respect our elders by making sure they have decent, affordable places to live,” Sinderson says.
Partnerships build community
Despite the severe lack of funding and long waiting lists, UCC-related senior housing ministries are finding ways to collaborate with community partners to continue serving their populations.
“One of our communities has a close relationship to a hospital that provides all kinds of medical and nursing assessment and primary care,” says Daniel. “Other places have local visiting nurses doing blood pressure checks, local podiatrists doing foot care, and local therapy companies sending people to provide services. [Some] have local food pantries come by and offer services. All of these collaborations extend the effectiveness of our housing program.”
Daniel urges local churches to “adopt a local senior apartment community to provide volunteers, activities, programs, and contributions to support the residents.”
Churches can also “offer classes on budgeting and the necessity of building savings, because the statement that ‘God will provide’ also brings with it responsibility for good stewardship,” Joseph adds.
In the end, the one factor that separates UCC-related affordable housing communities from others is faith.
“I believe it is our responsibility to appeal to the business leaders as well as the government officials in our local communities to stand up and take notice of those among us who need assistance attaining the most basic needs of life,” says Sinderson. “Faith-based affordable housing mission-based leaders are charged with … caring for the whole person: Ethically looking at how our seniors are living, and working together with community partners to come up with solutions that lead to [older adults] not only being safe, but [having] a reason to get up each morning, living as healthy as possible, and knowing how to access resources.”
“We have a responsibility to help not only those living in our communities, but also opening our doors to the seniors who are our neighbors, and letting them benefit from the many programs available to our residents,” Sinderson adds. “All are welcome!”
“That is truly what it means to be a leading faith-based organization.”