Low Income Seniors Feel Pinch of Housing Costs

Sunday, January 27, 2008
Bethania Palma
Inland Daily Bulletin

Rudolph Meza waited inside the Azusa Senior Center last week to speak with caseworker Doris Brochu.

Meza, 82, lost his wife, Margaret, in November, and when that happened, he also lost half his income.

Now, he said, he's faced with a $1,105 rent and a monthly income that exceeds that by less than $200.

Meza, like many other seniors, is finding that market-rate rents are about 100 percent of his Social Security checks, and there are long waiting lists for appropriate, affordable living arrangements.

"I'm 82 and even if I wanted to work, I can't even walk," he said. "If they don't help me here, I don't know what I'm going to do."

As housing costs have skyrocketed, government benefits have not kept up and the building of affordable housing has lagged, all while the population over 80 grows faster than any other age group, experts said.

Accepted guidelines for determining if housing is affordable stipulate that no more than 30 percent of household income be spent on housing costs.

"There's very little affordable housing being built, and there's an increasing number of older people that live off SSI or Social Security," said Jon Pynoos, UPS Foundation professor of gerontology and planning at USC.

California Supplemental Security Income benefits, received by more than 200,000 Los Angeles County seniors, is capped just over the federal poverty line and well under the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county.

The critical problem is, the free market on its own will not build enough affordable housing without a subsidy," said Bill Higgins, senior staff attorney for the League of California Cities. But "there's not enough subsidy dollars to go around."

He said some cities, like Santa Monica and Berkeley, have implemented rent control to keep people from being priced out of their apartments.

"Local governments take different approaches. Some want to develop an environment that emphasizes incentive and supply," he said. "Others find housing that gets built is never affordable, so they want to make sure the people that are living in their communities can continue living in their communities."

But a 1995 law limits cities' authority over rent prices, and apartment owners strongly oppose such ordinances.

"It's not the sole job of the apartment owner to subsidize people who are older," said Dan Faller, founder and president of the Apartment Owners Association of California. "If they should be subsidized, society as a whole should subsidize them, not a small group."

At the local level, Jeff Collier, Whittier director of community development, said state law mandates cities create affordable housing for a full spectrum of residents, including low-income seniors.

But high property values make it expensive for cities to fill the gap between affordability for low-income residents and the market rate.

He said the city had to invest $3.7 million to create 19 moderate-income units in one condominium project.

"That's how much it takes to subsidize just to get to the moderate-income level," he said. "To get to the very-low-income level, that's a very big number."

And while the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development once built about 20,000 units of subsidized, low-income senior housing a year, Pynoos said, the pace has slowed to a trickle of about 5,000 nationwide.

There are 6,576 units of government-subsidized senior housing in the county, and it can take almost 10 years on a waiting list to get one of these or a subsidized housing voucher, experts said.

Exacerbating the situation, Pynoos said, is that price controls on HUD projects eventually expire. Many now are going to market rate.

"We're losing affordable housing faster than we're building it," he said. "There's very little new being added."

Glendora Gardens, a 104-unit federal HUD complex for low-income seniors, is an example.

"The affordability is about to expire in the next five or six years," said Joann Patton, housing programs coordinator for Glendora. "We'd really like to see an affordable-housing developer take it over."

Sylvia Ruiz, housing manager for Pasadena, said the city has 1,323 affordable-housing units for low- income seniors through HUD and city assistance.

"The city is very proactive and supportive of affordable housing," she said.

Ruiz said she was unsure how many new units would be added in the near future, but added several projects have been placed on the table.

Lelia Garner, manager for Concord Apartments, a HUD-subsidized complex in Pasadena, said the waiting list is at least five years long.

Homeless advocates say the senior-housing problem has translated to more seniors on the streets.

"We used to have one poor little old lady on the street. Now you see about 50 people doing that," said Kitty Galt, an outreach worker for Pasadena-based Pacific Clinics.

"It's really common that we'll run into someone that's 60 years old and they're too young to get Social Security but too old to get work," Galt's partner, Ruben Gallegos, added.

But the team said it's seen an increasing number of people in their 70s and even 80s.

Chris Westlake, deputy director for the state Department of Housing and Community Development's division of financial assistance, said voter-approved Proposition 1C money, some of which is for affordable-housing projects, became available Jan. 1.

Fifteen percent of the units in qualifying project proposals must be for low-income seniors, he said.

Westlake said it will be about three years until the first projects are built. He said he could not project how many senior-living units would result until applications are filed.

Brochu said if Meza can hold on, Santa Anita Family Services might be able to help him pay utilities until a lower-priced apartment becomes available.

But Meza seemed pessimistic.

"Nothing seems to work for us," he said. "Instead, it works against you."

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