CityViews: How Community Preference Supports the Right to Age in Place

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Crossing the street in SOHO.

Daniel Iam

Crossing the street in SOHO.

Last week, as part of our Building Justice series, author Craig Gurian criticized New York City’s longstanding practice of reserving a large portion of the apartments in each affordable-housing development for residents of the local community district, a policy that he believes reinforces segregation. Veteran advocate for the aging Bobbie Sackman writes with a different view:

An aging demographic sea change is happening in New York City and will continue for decades. In New York City, by 2030, the over 60 population will rise to 1.8 million individuals as a result of the aging “Baby Boom” population, continuing increases in life expectancy, and New York’s growing diversity. What tools are given to communities to plan for its older residents are key to “aging in place”. This demographic change means that it has never been more important to consider housing with services planning through an aging lens. One of those tools is community preference.

Inadequate income continues to be a daily struggle facing older New Yorkers. Whereas the United States has experienced a decline in the national poverty rate for older people, New York’s older adults have experienced an increase in poverty with data showing that one in five are poor. Median income for city renters ages 60-69 is $24,000 and drops even lower to $15,000 for those over 70. The group most severely rent burdened is single seniors, 32 percent or about 100,000, of whom pay more than half of their income in rent. Further, the average annual income for older New Yorkers is often inadequate to cover the high cost of living in New York but does not allow many to qualify for public assistance benefits.

Simultaneously, New York City remains in an official state of “housing emergency” with an extremely low vacancy rate of only 3 percent. In a recent LiveOn NY study, “Through the Roof – Waiting Lists for Affordable Senior Housing”, we found that roughly 200,000 seniors are waiting for an average of 7 years on placements in affordable buildings. Most will never move into new affordable housing with services.

Coupled with the need for affordable housing options is the human right to age in place. In a 2013 statement, HUD recognizes its value by saying, “Aging in place allows people to better maintain their social relationships…In addition to preventing social isolation, allowing older people to stay involved in their communities has been found to have health benefits. Civic engagement and volunteering can reduce mortality; increase physical function, muscular strength, and levels of self-rated health; reduce symptoms of depression and pain; and increase life expectancy.” Indeed, the need to confront the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness cannot be overemphasized, as the New York Times recently highlighted the issues and research shows loneliness now surpasses obesity as a predictor of early death. These are serious issues calling out for a city response.

So, what tools can New York City employ that both sustain affordable housing options and allow older adults the ability to age in place? One strong option is the practice of community preference within affordable housing policy which, by virtue, seeks to benefit members of the community during times of increased investment in affordable housing. As important as the practice has established itself to be, pending litigation has questioned its future.

One rationale for ending community preference is that, increasingly, priority is placed upon supporting mobility to “neighborhoods of opportunity”. This may mean that one district represents more opportunity than others in terms of education or job availability, and by this standard, community preferences cuts off outsiders. Yet for older adults, neighborhoods of opportunity are and must formally be defined differently. Older New Yorkers have built friendships, life sustaining networks of social support and services including senior centers and health services, know local businesses, local transportation and utilize other neighborhood amenities. Central to their well being and quality of life, older adults live in a neighborhood that literally speaks their language and feeds their cultural identity. As important, seniors who are long term residents are anchors of support to others – providing thousands of volunteer hours, caring for neighbors and keeping an eye on the neighborhood’s well being. It makes sense they want to age in place right in the community they live in.

The pending litigation questions two fundamental yet oppositional human rights issues – the ability to age in place through community preference and fair housing. The Fair Housing Act protects buyers and renters, of certain protected classes, from landlord or seller discrimination. Definitively, the Fair Housing Act should be supported. However, community preference has proven to be a useful and needed tool to support aging in place to our oldest neighbors. It remains to be seen if the two truly are in conflict and, if so, how they can be reconciled in a way that preserves the protections of each. As the city ages and for the quality of life for older New Yorkers, we say they can and must.

Bobbie Sackman, Director of Public Policy, LiveOn NY