Nonprofits Join to Preserve Affordable Senior Housing

Article excerpt

"Waste Not, Want Not": That hoary exhortation, my grandfather's favorite, applies to affordable apartments for seniors.

Most discussions about how the United States will provide quality housing for its aging population miss a key point: In recent decades, the U.S. has made an enormous public investment in apartments for older adults with limited incomes, and the challenge now is to keep them affordable. Although these apartments will not alone be adequate to serve the expanding need, the loss of them will dig the aging American society a deeper hole.


As of 1998, public funds were subsidizing more than 1.7 million low-income apartments for elders. Of these, at least 800,000 were in more than 10,000 privately owned buildings serving primarily seniors. These properties are owned by nonprofit and for-profit operations and range in size from a few apartments to more than 1,100. Unhappily for public understanding, they were built under programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) named for obscure sections of federal laws, such as section 8, section 202, section 236 and section 515.

One common element of these programs is that they provide deep rent subsidies for seniors whose average annual incomes are less than $10,000. Typically, an older household pays 30% of its income on rent, and the federal government pays the rest up to a market or contract rent.

The other common element in these programs is that at some point the owner-for-profit or nonprofit-has a legal right to pay off the mortgage or decide not to renew a subsidy contract and then reuse the property for some other purpose, such as converting them to market-rate properties for sale. In its 2002 report titled A Quiet Crisis in America, the federal Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Facility Needs for Seniors in the 21st century noted that the United States had lost 20,000 subsidized senior apartments to the market through 2001, and an another 324,000 were at risk of being lost. Several measures can avoid that disastrous result.


An initiative called Window of Opportunity to preserve affordable housing, including senior housing, is underway with $150 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (see Members of the organization I head, Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF), are key participants in this effort. AARP, SAHF and MacArthur convened a group of national leaders on Sept. 18, 2007, to discuss preservation of senior housing. MacArthur then brought together nearly 200 preservation leaders on Nov. 7 and 8. The resulting movement soon will be launching a campaign to educate policymakers and the public about the need for and advantages of preservation.

Previously, in September 2005, SAHF and Enterprise Community Partners convened a one-day retreat among leaders in the field to develop a common agenda for reform of the section 202 program, the flagship program for older people. The Affordable Housing Finance Cabinet of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA) subsequently adopted and added to this agenda.

When the HUD failed to act on most of the recommendations, AAHSA staff drafted legislation aimed at reforming the section 202 program, so that nonprofits can rehabilitate and modernize properties constructed as long ago as 1959.

The resulting bill, HR 2930, was introduced in 2007 by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. After hearings, the bill passed the House of Representatives on Dec. 5. Housing advocates expected a companion bill to be introduced in the Senate in early 2008, and that hearings will be held in the spring. To address a series of other issues affecting both senior and family housing, Frank announced he will also soon introduce a comprehensive affordable housing preservation bill with broad applicability to senior and family housing. …