Low Income Seniors Face Subsidized Housing Challenges

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Older Americans with modest incomes are increasingly challenged to find affordable housing. Statistics show that households consisting of people who have reached the age of 80 have a mean annual income of $25,000. A quarter of those households have an annual income of less than $15,000. Most families need to earn nearly $60,000 a year to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Seniors are increasingly the primary beneficiaries of housing assistance programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Nearly half the recipients of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program have reached the age of 65. More than half the residents in government-owned public housing are seniors. Yet public housing is often not a desirable choice for senior living.

Subsidized Housing Options

The term “public housing” is sometimes used to refer to government-owned housing that is administered by a local housing authority. More broadly, the term is used to refer to any form of subsidized housing.

One form of public housing consists of apartment buildings that are owned and managed by a city’s housing authority. When people refer to living in the “projects,” they often have government-owned apartment complexes in mind. 

Public housing projects in large urban areas have often been depicted as dangerous, crime-ridden environments that contribute to urban blight. Because those perceptions were sometimes accurate, the trend has been to demolish government-owned public housing projects and to channel subsidized housing toward apartments that are privately owned.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program is one of two HUD programs that subsidize rent in the private market. The Housing Choice Voucher Program is “tenant based.” Vouchers are issued to tenants who can use them to rent from any private landlord that will accept them.

The other primary form of section 8 housing is “project based.” The government enters into contracts with private property owners who accept rent subsidies directly from HUD. The Project Based Rental Assistance Program generally requires renters to pay 30% of the approved cost of an apartment rental.

Renters who receive “tenant based” assistance can generally move to a different apartment after their lease ends, assuming their new landlord will accept their voucher as partial payment of their rent. Renters in “project based” assistance programs typically lose their assistance if they move.

The Risks of Housing Projects

Despite the decreasing numbers of individuals living in government-owned public housing, the percentage of tenants who are older adults has increased since 2016. About one-fifth of older adults living in public housing have reached the age of 80.

As the Urban Institute reports, seniors living in project housing “overwhelmingly occupy units that have not been designed for aging in place.” Only a small percentage of units occupied by older adults have accessibility features that accommodate residents with mobility issues.

According to the Urban Institute, much of the public housing across the country, whether publicly or privately owned, suffers from poor maintenance. Seniors suffer from health hazards associated with mold and mildew, rodent infestations, and broken heating plants. 

The private nonprofit market is often seen as delivering low-income housing more efficiently than the government. Unfortunately, private subsidized housing does not necessarily reduce risks to the senior population. Senior residents of a subsidized housing project in Palm Beach, Florida were recently left without hot water for two weeks. The management company turned off water heaters after it caused a gas leak that it was unable to locate. The company finally hired an outside company to fix the problem. It found the leak in two hours.

Navigating Subsidized Housing

Eligibility for subsidized housing depends on income, family size, and the average cost of housing in the area where an applicant lives. A tool on the HUD website helps seniors determine their eligibility for subsidized housing.

Subsidized housing is administered at the local level by public housing authorities. Making contact with the nearest public housing authority is the first step in applying for a housing subsidy.

Waiting lists for subsidized housing tend to be long. While HUD requires housing providers to maintain a tenant selection plan, seniors do not always know how that plan will affect their wait for a subsidized apartment. Low-income seniors should apply as soon as they become eligible. A senior’s name should rise on the list as vacant units are filled, but a name might fall if a senior with a lower income or greater need is added to the list. 

Unfortunately, seniors who are already in project-based housing may have little choice but to remain in their current apartment. Moving out might cause them to lose their subsidy, forcing them to reapply and returning to the bottom of a waiting list.

Seniors or their family members should visit potential residences and decide where they would be comfortable living. Desirable apartments usually have longer waiting lists. Local nonprofit organizations might have additional information about apartment availability. Contacting 211is a good starting point to learn about a nonprofit that might be able to help.

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