By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“You can’t plan for everything or you never get started in the first place.” — Jim Butcher
We get calls weekly from people who are looking for housing on an emergency basis. Unfortunately, we don’t usually have good news for these people. In my 12 years in my current position, we have only once had an immediate opening. Most of the time, I have to tell callers that our wait lists can be upwards of seven years long.
Many of these people are calling because a loved one experienced a medical crisis, and they simply cannot go back to their third-floor walkup or need to be closer to family. As a result, many people must prematurely consider options such as assisted living or nursing home placement that they otherwise might not be ready for.
Affordable housing is an important part of the safety net our country provides to our lowest income members. The importance of this part of the safety net is hard to understate. Without a safe place to call home, many people cannot take the next step and obtain employment or focus on bettering their medical situation. Indeed, even though it is possible for homeless families to go to school or find employment, without the stability offered by a permanent place to live, these next steps to self-sufficiency are almost always neglected.
So many benefits are tied to housing – where you live determines what school your kids will attend and what jobs you should consider. At least with Medicare and Social Security, you can receive the same benefit anywhere. Affordable housing is everywhere, but the reality of our current system of decentralization of housing means that if someone wants to apply for affordable housing, they have to apply many times at many different companies. Even our own company has (per HUD mandate) several waiting lists requiring multiple applications.
To their credit, 102 public housing authorities did organize into a Section 8 Centralized Waiting List in 2003 which has simplified application for many. Also, to their credit, several agencies (Mass Access through CHAPA, Massoptions.org through the state Department of Health and Human Services) have tried to simplify searching for a new place to live.
The biggest problem I see is often that once you are “in” and set up with affordable housing, you have to apply all over again to move to a building or community that serves your needs better. Many waiting lists for elder housing are years long and people find themselves shuffled back down to the bottom in terms of priority. This has the unfortunate effect of limiting choice for people trying to better their situation.
HUD has always promoted affordable housing, of course, but they have also been at the forefront of desegregation. Fair Housing law started in 1968 to make sure people had a choice of where to live. However, at its core, affordable housing is set up to tie people to one community. Typically, while companies do allow transfers if needed, they can only transfer a resident to another owned by the same company. In our capitalist society, mobility is important to offering opportunities to others and voting with our dollars by supporting some products and services over others.
In support of elders needing an emergency medical transfer, HUD would be well suited to helping housing agencies create a centralized list for applicants and transfers. There are too many housing providers for this to occur without assistance and currently emergency medical need is not a focus of HUD’s priorities. Until this problem is addressed, I advise people to apply early and to as many housing sites as they can, regardless. Having a choice, even several years down the road, is still better than no choice.