By Mark D. Olshan
Associate Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International
I’ve always thought of myself as a caring person, considerate of others and always thinking that we have a duty to be part of a society in which we respect and help one another where and when we can. Call me a do-gooder if you will, but please know that I am proud to wear that label.
With Congress back in session I continue to be baffled by its continued attempt to turn back the clock in the face of such overwhelming evidence of the number of aging Americans who require assistance with finding a safe, secure place to live.
The United States used to have a national housing policy focusing in part on creating affordable housing for older persons of limited means. Section 202 of the Housing Act of 1959 was the only federal program that provided safe, affordable housing exclusively for low-income elderly.
The program was envisioned as a partnership between government and community-based nonprofits like B’nai B’rith to supply housing to these individuals. The government would supply the financial means to build the property, while the nonprofits would oversee the initial development and ongoing operations. Subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers, would bridge the gap between what the tenant could afford and the cost of that apartment.
Over time, the funding mechanism for the program changed from a direct loan, with interest payments to the federal government, to a simple advance of funds for construction.
Since 1971, B’nai B’rith has been a partner with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in constructing and overseeing such properties. With 38 properties in 26 communities nationwide, we are the largest national Jewish sponsor of HUD-assisted senior housing. Our network comprises nearly 5,000 apartments available to more than 8,000 seniors.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the eligibility criteria were slightly refined. During the 1980s, “cost-containment” became the focus, and there was a shift to reducing the number of units being built and the overall construction cost. While budget driven, many of these decisions had an opposite effect. Having to replace and maintain systems cost more in the long term.
During the mid 1990s the program began to recognize and incorporate the physical and emotional needs of the residents, and the use of service coordinators become more prevalent.
With the aid of these professionals, residents were better able to obtain the support and services they might need to make aging-in-place more possible. HUD finally understood that providing some level of service support within the property often precluded a premature move to a more institutional setting for a resident, at a tremendous overall cost savings to society in general.
Even the definition of a well “independent” senior had changed. As these properties were basically apartments without medical or basic service supports when the program was initiated, one of the criteria for admittance into a HUD-assisted property was the ability to vacate your apartment in the event of an emergency. Today, residents are able to remain as long as they can direct the service supports around them to assist in vacating their apartment in the case of an emergency. Yet, today, nearly 40 percent of residents are considered frail and require assistance with some of the basic activities of daily living.
But, remaining in their homes with support beats having to move to a skilled-care or institutional facility many years before actually needing that level of medical support.
So, for a period of time, the program evolved and — despite severe budget cuts during the congressional efforts to reduce overall federal domestic spending — survive. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have taken pride in visiting these properties and publicly marvel at what they say is their tremendous value, not just for the individuals but for the whole community.
So, where do we stand now?
We know the country is growing older. The percentage of persons 65 and up is a larger percentage of the total population, growing from 35 million (12.5 percent) in 2000 to 49.5 million in 2016 (15 percent) to an expected 71.5 million (19.4 percent) by 2030. Compounding the issue is the increase in the number of persons 85 and older — 6.2 million in 2016, projected to grow to 6.9 million by 2020 due to our increased longevity.
But, the senior population’s sustained growth has not been matched by a corresponding growth in affordable housing. Currently, data show that there are at least 10 to 12 people on a waiting list for every available subsidized unit. The funding to create more of these properties has dried up. Currently, there are no federal dollars available to create new housing for this most vulnerable, growing population.
Where we housing advocates need to expand our efforts is to combat proposals currently being introduced in Congress that would charge current residents even more of their very low income to simply stay put. Even worse are attempts to cut subsidies completely, which could effectively throw current residents out of their apartments, and potentially into the street.
Remember, older persons must already have very low-incomes to qualify — below half of the area median income. Once deemed “income eligible,” they must pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for rent. If they have no income, they pay no rent. And we have a number of those individuals residing in our senior housing network. Bottom line is that these applicants were either homeless, near homeless, or at best, very low-income individuals.
Congress has recently debated amendments to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill that would reduce these subsidies while increasing tenants’ contributions from 30 to 35 percent of their meager incomes and require them to pay a minimum amount of rent, or lose the apartment entirely.
And, taking this even further, 139 House members voted for an amendment to reduce funds for project-based rental assistance by $266 million in the current fiscal year, thus jeopardizing approximately 3,000 apartments which could be affected by this action. Fortunately the amendment failed, but the threat remains.
The numbers are alarming, and the White House is threatening to make a bad situation worse. The administration’s budget proposals include the most dramatic cuts to HUD programs since the 1980s, gutting federal housing assistance and redirecting the savings to “higher priority areas.” What could be of higher priority than making certain that vulnerable older persons of very low income status have access to safe, affordable and adequate housing?
Mark D. Olshan, who holds a doctorate in Psychology, is the Director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services as well as Associate Executive Vice President of B’nai B’rith International.