By Marianne Delorey
There are two primary ways HUD has of subsidizing rents – tenant-based and project-based vouchers. One subsidy follows the person and the other subsidy follows an apartment. Project-based vouchers were more common historically, but an over-reliance on the project-based vouchers created communities of poverty, often in inner cities.
Subsequently, the government shifted focus to mobile (tenant) vouchers. Mobile vouchers can be used by a low-income household to pay their rent anywhere. This helps families access better school systems and employment opportunities. These vouchers are particularly valued by politicians because while there is a subsidy to reduce the rent, the government does not have to pay to help build the housing units as they are usually owned by private landlords.
There is a downside to offering fewer project-based units, and elders bear the brunt of the impact. Elders often move because their current housing is not suitable given their age-related changes or because they are searching for a community.
Many elders find that a larger house is too much for them, but the familiarity of home keeps them there until something (e.g. a bad winter or a fall) prompts the move. Elder housing, having been built with many accessibility features, may keep them independent longer.
Many people find that even though the home is fine, the isolation of being alone all day is too much. They seek out a community in which there are more people who are like them. Elder housing combats isolation by offering neighbors who can band together and create a supportive community. Maybe one can still drive. Another might be a great cook. Together, they support each other like family.
An additional benefit to housing that is set aside for elders is that often, the housing provider employs someone who can help the resident access services (housekeeping, health care, etc.) that keep the elder safe in the community.
So, mobile and project vouchers both have benefits, but some groups are more likely to be found in one type of housing than another. In the case of project-based housing, minorities are receiving the shorter end of the stick.
According to HUD’s data (https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/picture/yearlydata.html), minority elders are almost half again as likely to utilize a tenant-based voucher as a project-based apartment. That means that minority elderly families are less likely to live in apartments with accessible features like fewer stairs, have the chance to build a supportive community with other elders, and to avail themselves of supportive services to stay independent.
According to the Gerontologist, http://gerontologist.oxfordjournals.org/content/18/2/153.short, living in elderly housing was associated with using more services, more stability in one’s living situation, and higher survival rates.
So why don’t minorities choose to live in elderly housing? Perhaps because they are integrated with their families. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/jchs.harvard.edu/files/jchs-housing_americas_older_adults_2014-ch2.pdf, Asians and Hispanics in particular are more likely to live with family as they age than Whites or Blacks. This is especially true after age 80. Blacks are also more likely to live with families than Whites, but by a smaller margin.
As the costs of caregiving are shifted back to the families, there should be significant thought to how we can best meet the needs of aging minorities. Should we be doing more home modifications so that people can live in housing not intended for the elderly? Should we be finding a way to allow families to live with their elders in elderly housing? Should we be shifting caregiving services toward these populations?
One of the changes with the current political administration is that there is a shift toward holding people more accountable. HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson stated May 3 in a New York Times interview that he does not want to see affordable housing become “too comfortable” except for people who are elderly and disabled who “we can’t expect… to do a great deal to take care of themselves.”
If he is smart, he will recognize that more minority elders are cared for by their families in housing that is not set aside for older people. If he is going to make cuts to family housing, he should restore funding to the 202 program and build more housing for elders.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or firstname.lastname@example.org and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com