Finding affordable housing is a challenge for most New Yorkers, but it isn’t hard to find seniors who feel great strain over the hard-to-reconcile realities of low incomes and high rents. Half of senior households pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing costs, including approximately 300,000 renters and 150,000 senior homeowners, according to census data. Ninety thousand New York seniors pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent, and over 2,000 seniors per night reside in the shelter system, a 2014 LiveOn report on “Building a Housing Agenda for Older New Yorkers” found, noting that the city faces “a massive shortfall of senior housing.”
“Without investment in a comprehensive senior housing plan today, New York City will not be equipped to deal with the growing senior population and may be forced to meet the housing needs of the elderly through costly solutions such as shelter beds, hospitals or nursing homes,” the report’s author/s wrote.
Caesar E. Barber, 69, divorced in 2013 but says he pays his ex-wife $200 a month to continue living in her two-bedroom co-op apartment in Hollis, Queens. The Bronx native has no pension or savings and receives $660 a month in Social Security and an additional $189 in SNAP benefits. He says he has been on a NYCHA waiting list for two years and has searched for other housing options but found apartments with rents above $1,800 and requiring hefty security deposits.
“Without her, I’d be under water,” Barber says. The arrangement is amicable, he says, but “I know it bothers her, and it bothers me because I feel like I’m a burden on her.”
If his ex-wife wants him out, he has told her, their best option is for her to take him to court to evict him: “then I can get some kind of help from social service or maybe live in some kind of shelter,” he says.
Rafael Guerra, 65, who asked that his middle name be used, pays $300 a month to sleep on a friend’s living room sofa in a NYCHA apartment, a violation of NYCHA rules that has led him to use the Dyckman Senior Center as his mailing address. He estimates he’s stayed at nine different places in the last few years, living with different friends for short stints interrupted by days or weeks of sleeping on park benches. Like many seniors, his income is too low to qualify him for affordable housing.
Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents District 1/Chinatown and heads the City Council’s Committee on Aging, says housing is the top issue for seniors contacting her office. “Often times the seniors are being harassed because they pay the lowest rent because they’ve been there the longest time and [the landlords] are trying to get them out of the building,” she says. Seniors are among the “hidden homeless” as well, doubled and tripled up in small rooms and office cubicles. “The problem is something we don’t see,” she says.
Affected by gentrification
Neighborhood gentrification has put local seniors under a constant threat of eviction, usually on shaky grounds, says a staff member at the Dyckman Senior Center in Inwood. “All of the seniors living in the area where the landlords can get two, three, four times the rent…are really at risk,” she says.
The number of homeless seniors has risen as well, and the de Blasio administration has stated its intention to fund 1,000 new units of housing for homeless seniors. Claudia “Rusty” Adams, 73, was released from prison last year after serving 28 years for murder and is living at Valley Lodge, a homeless shelter for seniors in Manhattan where she receives services and support. The $8 a week she earned at her job in the prison laundry didn’t exactly lend itself to retirement savings, and her pre-conviction years of work in a perfume factory left her two credit shorts of qualifying for Social Security, she says. Her husband died while she was incarcerated, so she receives $700 a month in survivor’s Social Security benefits – her sole income. She hopes to find an apartment near the church she attends in Queens but has found few options there.
“They need to have some houses in Queens – you know, that we can afford,” she says.
The federal Section 202 program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been the main vehicle for creating new senior housing, but federal support for affordable senior housing has decreased in recent years.
The de Blasio administration is working to address the lack of affordable housing for seniors with a proposal to preserve and create 10,000 units for seniors, with a 60-40 split between preservation and new construction, and an expansion of the scope and enrollment in the city’s rent freeze program for seniors, known as SCRIE (for Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption).
“We’re providing 10,000 units of affordable housing for New Yorkers who have worked hard all of their lives, and deserve to retire in dignity. Women and men who live on fixed incomes have little recourse when housing costs go up. They need our help and they will get it,” the mayor said in the state of the city address in February.
Reining in rents is key
One key initiative for affordable senior housing is the Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption program, generally known as SCRIE (rhymes with “free”). Seniors can get their rent frozen at its current level, meaning not subject to any increases; in return, landlords get a reduction in property tax on the amount they would have received with a rent increase.
Seniors must meet certain qualifications to enroll: They must be 62 or older, live in a rent-regulated apartment, pay 30 percent or more of their income in rent, and fall under the program’s income limit, wehich was increased last year from $29,000 to $50,000 a year.
LiveOn’s Bobbie Sackman calls SCRIE “the best game in town” for seniors, since it enables them to age in their homes and communities.
“You’re not going to build your way out of a crisis, and that’s why a lot of this is about preservation and that’s where the SCRIE program comes in,” Sackman says. “You build a building, you get 60 units, you chip away, but it’s not solving the problem on the scale that’s needed.”
As of April 2015, nearly 50,000 seniors were enrolled in the program, according to the Department of Finance, which runs the program. The bill increasing the income limits was signed last May and went into effect in July, says DOF spokeswoman Sonia Alleyne, and although it’s too early to do a full-year comparison to learn the impact of the increase, early data indicates enrollment is up: in July 2014, DOF processed 2,036 applications compared to 645 in July 2013 and 613 in July 2012.
Earlier this year, a Department of Finance report found that more than half of the 121,729 city seniors who were likely eligible for SCRIE were not enrolled in the program. More than half of these SCRIE-eligible households are headed by immigrants. Language barriers and fear of government prevented some from enrolling, the report found, but the name SCRIE was also a barrier since many did not know what it stood for.
The program has since been rebranded as the Senior Rent Freeze with a new “Freeze Your Rent” logo that appears on websites and pamphlets. As part of the push to up enrollment, all SCRIE materials have been translated into six languages and DOF is launching a website to make accessing online SCRIE materials easier for seniors and their family members. DOF has targeted neighborhoods with high under-enrollment like Flushing/Whitestone in Queens, Coney Island in Brooklyn, Kingsbridge Heights/Mosholu in the Bronx, and the Upper East and West Sides along with Stuyvesant Town/Turtle Bay in Manhattan, and is working with ethnic media outlets to raise awareness of the program.
“Everyone in city government knows what it is,” says Alleyne. “The challenge is to get the word out to seniors about the benefit.”
One next step DOF is working on is to get legislation passed that would require landlords to include clear information about NYC’s Rent Freeze Programs (there is a similar program for people with disabilities) included with all new and renewal leases. And advocates for seniors are pushing for changes to the program that would allow rents to roll back to 30 percent of a senior’s income, as opposed to freezing rent at whatever rate it is when the senior applies for relief. Many people don’t hear about the program until they are in crisis, paying 40 or 50 percent of their income for housing, says Sackman. Although SCRIE stops further increases, a roll-back provision would prevent the freezing of a senior’s rent at a still-intolerable rate.
SCRIE doesn’t help everyone. Doris Guevara, 75, breaks into tears in recounting how she applied but did not qualify for the program. She and her son co-signed a lease on their one-bedroom apartment in Queens fifteen years ago and have seen their rent increase to $1,450 a month. Guevara gets $760 a month in Social Security. Her son, who is 48 and works in residential security on the Upper West Side, earns $29,000 a year, but makes as much as $54,000 with overtime. Guevara sleeps in the bedroom, her son, Paul Liendo, sleeps on a sofa-bed in the living room, an arrangement he says is making it hard for him to get married. He concedes it’s likely they will eventually have to move, but for now they both feel hard-pressed to find other options.
“The life is very terrible because of the rent,” Guevara says. “If I have to go live alone, how I’m going to pay $400 or $500 for a room? And honestly, I like to live with my son.”
“She has a low-income, that’s why she lives with me,” says Liendo. “I am the only son. There is nobody else to help.”
Aging in place
Even when seniors can afford their rents, their apartments may not be well-suited to them as they age. An 82-year old Inwood woman who did not want to be identified by name says taking the stairs in her fourth-floor walk-up “keeps me young.” She shrugs off the arthritis in her knee that requires her to use a cane. But if her mobility got worse, she says, she doesn’t know what she’d do: “I could never find another apartment” with rent comparable to what she pays on the place she’s lived in for 55 years.
The City Council recently passed legislation to offer landlords a guide to retrofitting their buildings to help seniors age in place, by installing items like grab bars in bathrooms to prevent falls. Some advocates for seniors want to invest in a program that would enable the city to contract with construction crews to do such work for eligible renters and homeowners. (Some seniors say landlords are slow or reluctant to make any repairs in light of the lower rents they pay and the often obvious desire to push them out.)
Regulatory changes to help the city’s housing stock better meet the needs of its population could also help seniors age in place, LiveOn’s housing report argues. New rules might enable construction of more small studios designed for single-person households or accessory units that would make single family homes more flexible for extended family members or non-family renters.
The Inwood woman says she prefers to trust in God and not to think about the future. “I mean, I’m 82 now, right?,” she says. “How long could I live?”
City Limits’ coverage of housing policy is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.
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