Housing for the ages

March 06, 2006

At a time when the nation's elderly population is growing and is projected to skyrocket in the next 25 years, government should be focusing on expanding programs for the elderly, not shrinking them. Yet a Bush administration budget proposal would do just that by cutting spending on a popular federal program that pays for construction and rehabilitation of housing for low-income seniors.

The administration is overlooking two simple but important facts: One-fourth of elderly U.S. households have annual incomes of less than $10,000 a year, and rents are rising in many parts of the country. President Bush should be asking why nine seniors are on waiting lists for every one low-income apartment constructed.

Nearly 36 million people age 65 and older were living in the U.S. in 2003, according to the Census Bureau, and the number will surpass 50 million by 2020. Yet the administration has steadily shrunk the program, from $778 million in 2003 to $545.5 million proposed for 2007. If this trend continues, the housing needs of the elderly poor won't be met in the near future, much less in coming decades.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said difficult budgetary conditions led them to cut the elderly housing program to pay increased rents for millions of poor families under another program. Some 400,000 housing units have been constructed under the seniors housing program, and HUD is financing 342 more projects under construction. The program also provides subsidies to keep rents affordable.

In Baltimore and surrounding areas, the average tenant in one of six such apartment projects built by Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., a local nonprofit organization, is over 80 years old, and some can afford to pay just $100 toward rent.

Congress should ensure that elderly Americans aren't sacrificed in the budget-cutting process and restore some of the funding to the supportive housing program. House lawmakers should also follow the Senate's lead and support legislation proposed by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes creating an executive-level, interagency council to coordinate housing programs and related services for senior citizens. It is a worthy and timely idea that could well prepare the nation for the many challenges that lie ahead as the population ages.

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