Sheltering seniors

June 06, 2005

WITH THE debate over the nationwide shortage of affordable housing centered on working families, it's important that the housing needs of the elderly, especially those on fixed incomes, not be overlooked in the search for long-term solutions.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, older renters are more likely than older homeowners to spend more than 30 percent of their gross household income on housing - 32 percent of renters ages 50 to 64 and 54 percent of renters age 85 and older. As a result, older renters are reducing "crucial everyday expenditures" for transportation or health care, or moving to cheaper housing, away from family, friends, houses of worship and other important support networks that they rely on.

Such scenarios, outlined in a new study, leave senior citizens vulnerable and may place additional cost burdens on state and local governments. The study by AARP, an organization that focuses on issues important to older Americans, recommends that communities begin preparing now for a steadily aging American population.

The evidence supporting the need is plentiful.

A 2002 congressional housing commission report found that people 65 and older receiving rental assistance were outnumbered by those with unmet housing needs. Another AARP report found nine applicants waiting for every one slot in a federal rent subsidy program for the elderly.

Federal, state and local governments should be developing forward-looking affordable-housing plans, especially given census forecasts of a 21 percent jump in the population of people ages 50 to 64 from 2005 to 2020, and a 33 percent increase of those 65 and older. The number of people under age 50 is expected to grow just 4 percent during the same period, yet many affordable-housing programs are geared toward younger households, or to low-income elderly homeowners.

According to a report by the Governor's Commission on Housing Policy, Maryland will be short of 25,000 affordable rental housing units for the elderly over the next decade and must spend $3.1 billion in assistance programs to address that gap. The state currently produces about 1,044 housing units for the elderly annually, and is planning to finance construction of 1,444 units every year over the next decade - 10,560 short of the expected need. Stadium Place, a mixed-income seniors complex being built with financial help from the city on the old Memorial Stadium site, is the right model of affordable rentals, homes and assisted-living options.

The state has earmarked $13 million for fiscal 2006 for rental housing construction programs for elderly residents, a $1.3 million increase over last year. During the past decade, 53 percent of federal housing funds and low-income housing tax credits in Maryland went to building units for elderly people.

State and local housing officials still have a long way to go toward meeting the need, but they are at least planning for the future.

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