Affordable housing for elderly is scarce Senior housing lags behind doubling of group's population in past decade HOWARD COUNTY SENIORS

September 30, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Elsie Waters, 71, didn't think she'd have to wait longer than a month to move into one of the county's four apartment complexes for elderly and handicapped people.

That was two years ago. She's still waiting -- and she's not alone. Hundreds of senior citizens in Howard County are looking for housing, either because they want to lower their rent or they can't maintain their homes because their spouses have died.

Others, because of illness, need special services and more medical attention. Still others, like Mrs. Waters and her 73-year-old husband, are living in crowded homes with family members and want to move out to be independent.

Mrs. Waters is anxious to find new lodging, but she's resigned to her predicament.

"There's nothing you can do about it," she said. "When you get this age, you don't get frustrated. You just roll with the punches, as they say."

But the chances of any of them finding affordable housing in the county are bleak, says Valerie Polgar, manager at Longwood Apartments, a complex for seniors in the Village of Long Reach. "If they don't have a preference or are in a crisis situation, they don't have choices any longer."

The 65-and-older population in the county has almost doubled since 1980, from about 6,000 to about 11,400 in 1990, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures. But no new apartment complexes to house the elderly have been built since 1982, save an expansion of Owen Brown Place now being developed by Shelter Development.

The solution? "More money, more buildings," said Ms. Polgar. "But that's just not happening today."

The average wait for an apartment at Longwood is about four years. Ms. Polgar's preferred waiting list -- for seniors who are homeless or pay more than 30 percent of their income to rent -- is two years. Some seniors die before their names reach the top.

At Hickory Ridge Place, an apartment building mostly for seniors near the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, manager Virginia Graeber doesn't even know how many people are on the waiting list -- it's long.

"Usually, when I explain to them how long they'll have to wait, they just don't sign up," she said. "We just don't have enough housing for seniors."

"There has not been much elderly housing built in Howard County in a long time," said Andrew Aulde of Shelter Development, which manages more than 5,000 affordable units in the Baltimore area, including Columbia.

"There's a significant number of people now entering their 70s and 80s and there is a real need for affordable housing for those people," he said.

What's worse, the recent economic downturn has cut into the pockets of seniors -- especially those who live off the interest of their savings accounts, certificates of deposit and mutual funds. Seniors who have $25,000 in a savings account at an interest rate of 7 percent, for example, received $1,750 a year. But now, at an average interest rate of 3 percent, they're only getting $750 a year -- or about 60 percent less.

"What they're going to do is cut back on medication or food to meet their house payments," said Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing administrator. "Although the interest rate is down, the cost of living isn't. The elderly who were comfortable living in their house are no longer comfortable."

Mr. Vaughan said the county has no money to build specialized housing for seniors. Some 200 seniors rent homes and apartments under the federally subsidized Section 8 program, which also has a waiting list of eligible seniors. The county encourages seniors to rent homes and share expenses with other seniors looking for housing, Mr. Vaughan said.

Meanwhile, the prices of homes keep rising in Howard County, making it hard for seniors -- as well as young couples -- to live in the county. The average cost of a new town house is $168,000, and the average cost of a new single home ranges from $210,000 to $250,000, according to a Housing Plan study released last year.

The Housing Plan, created by a 13-member task force, suggested the county should adopt zoning changes that would permit the building of 20,000 apartment and town house units over the next 20 years.

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray introduced a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Program last week that would require residential developers to build a certain percentage of their homes for the middle class. While it will create more apartments and small town homes in the range of $72,000 to $90,000, the program targets people making between $25,000 and $45,000 -- incomes still too high for many elderly.

"I feel we are far behind in caring for our elderly, for being such a forward-looking county," said Amelia Cressman, chairwoman of Senior Advocates of Howard County.

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