Philadelphia helps elderly refurbish older houses

At least 90 percent of city's seniors live in homes built before 1939

March 04, 2001|By Kendall Anderson | Kendall Anderson,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia, facing an exodus of younger residents and with one in five people over the age of 64, has been forced to tackle the challenges posed by a large elderly population.

From maintaining housing to providing low-cost transportation to respecting the rights of the elderly, Philadelphia - the most gray of the nation's five biggest cities - has faced the issues that many other cities will grapple with, in some form, by 2030, city officials and demographers predict.

On average, one in eight U.S. residents is older than 64 - a ratio that will be one in four by 2030, when all of the baby boomers are seniors.

`We're already there'

"Cities with younger populations, like Dallas, have a real opportunity to look at people aging in a way that we don't have here in Philadelphia," said Susan Klein, director of housing for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, a nonprofit organization that serves seniors. "We're already there."

In Philadelphia, thousands of poor, older homeowners grapple to make their two-story homes livable.

Narrow doorways, the traditional second-floor bathroom and stairways - from sidewalk to porch and between floors - are tough on walkers, wheelchairs and tired legs.

Because 76-year-old Maria Arjona wants to take her medicine for a severe respiratory condition, she can't afford repairs to her old rowhouse. Her basement floods, the ceilings need work and climbing the stairways gets harder each day. With a monthly income of $660, Arjona said she's been waiting several years to save $590 to repair a broken drain pipe.

"My house needs a lot of work, and I'd really like to fix it up," said Arjona, her white hair braided into two neat pigtails. "But I can't pay anybody, and there's no way I can do it myself. The flooding makes me panicky. But I have to buy my medicine."

At least 90 percent of elderly Philadelphians live in homes built before 1939. The average home value is $50,000, but many are worth $30,000 or less, officials said. New homeowners are slowly surfacing but the city has seen a 10 percent drop in population since 1990, mostly due to younger residents leaving.

The age of homes, the low home values and incomes and the widespread desire to age in place add up to many problems, said Angel Recchia, managing attorney for the Senior Citizens Judicare Project.

"You have this nexus of no money and homes badly in need of repair. It's really, really widespread," said Recchia, whose organization gives legal help to seniors.

City and federal funds help pay for home renovations and repairs for many poor residents. But even with generous funding from the state's lottery, the demand is far more than the resources, officials said.

A city ordinance requires wider doorways, first-floor bathrooms and zero-grade entrances for new structures that get public funds - similar to ordinances in Austin, Atlanta and a few other cities.

"We need to - everyone needs to - quit repeating mistakes when we build homes. Every time I look at a house now I think, who is going to be living in that house years from now?" Klein said.

Klein oversees a housing staff of 20 people. It's the largest housing staff in a senior citizen's assistance agency and one of the only housing departments within a senior citizen's assistance agency.

Klein and her staff have educated themselves about making all buildings, including apartments, "visitable" by seniors. The idea, borne out of a construction movement in Atlanta, means changing everything from the typical home's doorways, lighting, door knobs, electrical sockets and light switches, to name a few.

"The time to make those changes is not at 80, but when you rehab at 50," Klein said.

Other problems arise

Other problems have spun out of Philadelphia's situation. Recchia's office is inundated with calls from worried seniors who can't sell their homes or claim property tax privileges because their names aren't on the title.

"You have people with equitable interest in a property but they or their spouse never did anything to transfer the title to them," she said. "It's a very serious problem."

Finding a title or making sense of the pattern of ownership for a property with no paperwork to start with is time-consuming, Recchia said. Sometimes in inheritance cases, she and her attorneys spend months trying to track down relatives who legally must be notified before a title is transferred.

Another problem related to elderly home ownership is the city's backlog of code enforcement complaints - many involving older homeowners, officials said.

Abandoned houses - which, along with abandoned buildings, total 27,000 - is a recurring problem that occurs when seniors go to a nursing home and no one in a family assumes responsibility for a home.

Some of the ethical issues that surface when dealing with older homeowners have made staffers at the corporation for aging staunch advocates for a senior's right to self-determination.

One summer, neighbors complained about the stench from an older man's house. Officials visited and found no code violations - the man just had a stinky house and didn't open windows or use air conditioning. Neighbors wanted something done anyway.

"We recommended he use the air conditioning and fans, but that's all we could do - this guy knew what he was doing and he had that right," Mudd said. "Some people have a patronizing and paternal way about the elderly. ... But they still have a right to self-determination. We're seeing that more and more."

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