AP Real Estate Writer
The Bart Harvey is just a building, but it rescued Felicity Morrison from a homeless shelter.
Morrison, 63, lived in a Seattle shelter for a year after losing her job and being evicted. It was a place full of unsavory characters and no privacy — a “hell on Earth,” Morrison calls it.
A few months back, a counselor learned of The Bart Harvey development, 50 new apartments in Seattle for seniors 62 and older who earn half of the area median income or less. Morrison qualified, and moved into her one-bedroom unit last month.
“My apartment is really beautiful,” said Morrison, who receives $1,057 monthly in Social Security and disability payments and pays $270 a month in rent. “I can sit in my living room and see Lake Union. I can see the boats on the water.”
Morrison’s story illustrates a solution to a growing problem for seniors.
“Housing affordability is, quite frankly, almost a crisis for many older Americans. It’s getting worse over time,” said Elinor Ginzler, an AARP senior vice president. “Many low-income seniors … find themselves in a position where they can’t afford a fair market rent and are closed out of waiting lists for subsidized rentals.”
Along with health care, housing availability is a crucial issue facing older Americans. A Congressional report this decade by a commission on affordable housing and health needs for seniors said one in six people will be age 65 or older in 2020. Today, the ratio is one in 12.
Demand for government-subsidized rental properties for seniors far outweighs current and planned future supply: Many buildings require updating. Hundreds of units are lost when buildings that were once financed under Housing and Urban Development Department programs become obsolete or are sold.
Despite efforts of nonprofit groups and developers, new construction isn’t keeping pace with demand, especially during a recession, where financing is hard to get.
Many low-income seniors live on fixed incomes from Social Security. Two in five households 65 or older earn less than half of the national median income, and about one in 10 household heads in that age group live in poverty, according to Census data.
Government support comes from several sources, including tax credits for investors in affordable housing, and the Section 202 program that provides grants and rental help through nonprofit sponsors of low-income senior housing projects.
Section 202, the only affordable housing program dedicated to seniors, has about 250,000 units, said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. Meanwhile, local housing authorities administer millions of rental units for the nation’s poor, regardless of age.
Waiting lists can be a year or longer for affordable rental units. On average, nine people are on the waiting list for each Section 202 unit, said Tom Slemmer, president of National Church Residences, a nonprofit that provides 25,000 affordable units for seniors whose average age is 80 and average yearly income is $10,100.
Housing costs are a heavy burden. About a third of renters 65 and older spend half their income — or more — on rent and utilities.
By the year 2020, 730,000 additional rent-assisted units will be needed for senior households age 65 and older who have problems paying for housing, according to the Congressional report.
The ongoing credit crunch has affected developers of low-income senior housing, partly because tax credits that serve as incentives for investors in affordable housing have not been attractive enough to spur construction. Slemmer said a few National Church Residences projects have been delayed because of financing problems, but none has been canceled.
Still, National Church Residences has been able to rehabilitate some Section 202 projects, including a $13.2 million renovation of a 150-unit building in Sandusky, Ohio, paid for by a combination of tax credits, grants and other sources. The renovation included asbestos removal, energy efficiency improvements and new kitchen appliances, Slemmer said.
Back in Seattle, all 50 units at The Bart Harvey are expected to be filled, including at least 10 for the previously homeless, said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which developed and operates the building.
Residents there pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities, with rents averaging between $150 and $250 per month, to live in a building with dual flush toilets, carpet and tiles made of recycled materials, and other “green” building approaches.