While Barbara Ross’s income places her below the poverty line, she isn’t one of the nearly 2 million households with older adults in dire need of affordable housing. Thanks to a little-known federal program, Ross, 64, is able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Plainfield, N.J.
Through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) “Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly” program, Ross is one of 400,000 households with older adults that don’t pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
In fact, the program is what saves Ross, whose income is less than half of others’ incomes in her area – from being considered a “worst case housing need.” That term refers to impoverished renters who spend more than half of their incomes on housing—in other words, those most impacted by the nation’s lack of affordable housing.
Tragically, the number of all households considered “worst case housing needs” continues to grow—increasing by more than half a million households from 2013-15 to reach 8.3 million households nationwide. What’s more, 66 percent of the increase came from older adult households. In part, Section 202 and its long waiting lists are a clear sign that the private market simply cannot produce homes on its own that rent low enough for someone with an income of $13,300 a year to afford.
“I live below the poverty line,” Ms. Ross told attendees at a housing rally for LeadingAge—a 6,000 member aging services nonprofit—in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. “It does something to a person. You lose yourself emotionally and spiritually. When you have services like the 202 program, it lifts you, it brings you back to your dignity, and to your self-respect. You no longer depend on your children or your relatives. You’re living independently. You pay your own rent. You’re once again a thriving person in the community.”
Congress has shown its own appreciation for the 202 program, providing it with $10 million in new housing construction funds this year—the first time since 2010 the federal government has funded new construction through the initiative. What’s more, it’s happening at a time when budget caps are tightening the vise on other HUD programs serving older adults. But more should be done to support at-risk older adults like Ms. Ross. These are but small steps to erase the suffering of those in desperate need of affordable housing.
And suffer worst case households do. By definition, “worst case needs” households spend more than 50 percent of their incomes for rent. In reality, this often means spending as much as 80 percent of their income on rent. As you might imagine, that leaves very little money for other necessities—whether food, medicine, or transportation—creating tough choices for low-income older adults without assistance.
While Congress’s support for Section 202 is promising, we can and must do better by the hundreds of thousands of older adults poised to show up for the first time in HUD’s next “worst” report. To fix the worst, we must do our best. Let’s get going.
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Linda Couch is the Vice President of Housing Policy at LeadingAge on their Congressional Affairs and Housing Team. She has been with the organization for five years.