California’s Lowest-Income Seniors Desperate for Affordable Housing

Four thousand low-income seniors applied for the 120 units at The Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center in San Francisco. Photo: Veronica Moscoso.

The day before a Bay Area affordable housing complex opened up its waiting list, seniors formed a line at the entrance of the building, which quickly spilled into the street.

The older adults stayed all day—despite sun so intense that staff supplied water—and camped overnight, recalled Priscilla Haynes, the executive director of the Santa Clara Methodist Retirement Foundation.

Even those who ended up securing a spot after that harrowing 2015 experience may still be waiting up to three more years for a rent-subsidized apartment in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

“It takes forever—there isn’t enough affordable housing,” said Haynes, whose foundation provides low-income housing for more than 270 seniors and disabled adults. “The very low-income folks are the ones who are hit the hardest and who suffer the most.”

The combination of soaring rents and aging baby boomers has created an insatiable demand for affordable housing in California. Thousands of people apply just to get on a wait list. As a result, some low-income seniors die still hoping for a place of their own. In the meantime, they cram into shared spaces, live with family, sleep on couches or even end up homeless.

Amid that tremendous demand, housing officials say they work hard to market in underrepresented communities, trying to ensure their buildings’ ethnic and racial make-up reflects the overall community—a challenging feat in some areas of California.

“California has so many households in need of affordable housing, that it is more important than ever to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to access it, regardless of race, ethnicity, family status or disability,” said Meghan Rose, director of housing policy for LeadingAge California, a senior advocacy group.

Waiting and Hoping

Before Oakland resident Doris Pitts, 79, moved into affordable housing, her rent was $920 a month. With a fixed income from social security and a pension, she had exactly $23 left.

“I didn’t have money for my medicine and I went to food banks to eat,” said Pitts, who worked in senior care herself before retirement. “I had to give up my car because I had no gas to get around.”

After waiting for about a year on an affordable housing list, she moved into her current one-bedroom in 2013, where she pays 30 percent of the rent, or about $400. She’s been able to pay off her bills, and can afford medicine and food.

“Now, I can live,” she said.

For those still waiting for affordable housing, daily life can be stressful.

In San Jose, Emma Olagova has spent almost seven years trying to secure affordable housing, and is now on four different lists. For now, she’s living with her daughter and her family. At 78, Olagova craves some space of her own and quiet when she wants to sleep early, she said through a Russian translator.

Similarly, Cupertino resident Maureen Whalen, 69, has also been waiting seven years. Whalen, an artist on a fixed income of $900 a month, lives with her two 30-something nephews and their two roommates.

She’s frustrated that too much of the affordable housing discussion centers around seniors who can afford to pay more than her—many of the state’s new tax-credit projects, which offer private developers tax incentives to create affordable housing, cater to people who make a certain percentage of the area’s median income—instead of “the lowest of the low.”

She’s appreciative of her nephews’ generosity, but knows she needs to find her own place.

“If it weren’t for these homes, I would become homeless,” Whalen said.

Reflecting the Community

While it’s hard to quantify the exact demand for senior affordable housing in California, Los Angeles’ experience this month with its overall affordable housing program offers a telling snap shot. This month the housing authority will open its waiting list for its Section 8 voucher lottery for the first time in 13 years.

Housing authorities anticipate 600,000 people will apply for the 20,000 spots on the wait list. Even then, some people could spend more than a decade waiting on the list, said housing authority spokeswoman Annie Kim.

“The need is so great because rents continue to go up and people aren’t making much more,” Kim said. “There is a huge disparity and that makes it pretty dire.”

In general, affordable housing attracts diverse populations, managers say. Of the 5,000 seniors in his units, about 70 percent are women and 60 percent people of color, said Don Stump, the president of Oakland-based Christian Church Homes.

But having a waitlist that accurately reflects the make-up of the surrounding communities isn’t always an easy feat, officials say. Some ethnic groups might be more aware of the wait lists’ openings, and spread the word quickly to their friends and families, they say.

Donna Griggs-Murphy, the social services coordinator at Allen Temple Arms in Oakland, said she spreads the word via Spanish-language radio, newspapers and television as well as African American churches. Ensuring that people in these demographic groups—who are the ones least likely to apply, based on her building’s current demographics—land on the wait list is challenging.

The wait list is often “not reflective of our community, but it’s reflective of people who know how to utilize a network,” she said.

That’s been the challenge in Campbell as well, Haynes said. She offered the example of the wait list for the Wesley Manor one-bedroom apartments. Of the about 300 waiting lists spots in 2016, 78 percent were Asian American, 15 percent white, 5 percent Latino and less than 1 percent African American. According to the 2010 census, the racial makeup of that city is about 67 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic or Latino, 16 percent Asian and 3 percent African American.

Earlier this year, Haynes opened the wait list for studios in Santa Clara. This time, she intensified outreach to the Latino community, visiting community centers and senior lunch centers in places such as East Palo and San Jose. Her staff did presentations in Spanish about when and how to get on a wait list. As a result, 16 percent of people on the current waitlist for the Santa Clara units are Latino residents.

Cause for Optimism

Despite the unprecedented need for senior housing, there’s some cause for optimism—especially in California.

Just last month, the governor signed a wave of bills aimed at increasing affordable housing statewide. These include a $75 fee on many real estate transactions to create a permanent revenue source.

Rose, at LeadingAge California, said she wants to ensure these changes directly impact low-income seniors. Along with adding housing units, Rose also stressed the importance of policies that integrate health care and housing.

“We strongly believe that housing is health care,” she said. “We can’t properly care for people if they don’t have a safe place to live.”

In fact, some affordable housing organizations plan to incorporate on-site health services to help seniors age in place—delaying the move to costly nursing homes. At Oakland’s Allen Temple Arms, Griggs-Murphy describes a pilot program that will use a nurse and wellness director to help residents stay healthier at home.

For now, though, the depth of the crisis is tough to ignore, especially when there’s “an 80-year-old sitting in a lawn chair in a line,” Griggs-Murphy said. “If the government doesn’t think that’s a crisis, come on.”

Related: In a City with Soaring Housing Costs, a Senior Center Keeps Elders in the Neighborhood

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