Dear Secretary Carson,
On behalf of B’nai B’rith International, its members, supporters and more than 8,000 residents of B'nai B'rith sponsored HUD assisted rental units; I want to welcome you as the newest secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I hope that it brings you pride to oversee a department whose responsibility to the greater population is shaped by extending opportunity to low-income Americans.
Five HUD programs provide affordable rental housing that is designated for low-income senior households. Section 202 provides housing exclusively for older adults and people with disabilities, while four other HUD programs provide housing for all age groups but have devoted the property to housing senior residents. These include Section 236 and Section 221 (d)(3) programs, public housing and project-based Section 8 programs dedicated primarily for use by senior households. After the Section 202 program, project-based Section 8 housing provides the most housing dedicated specifically to elderly households.
As you become more familiar with how HUD works to combat poverty for individuals and families all over our country using a modest portion of the federal budget, I want to bring your attention to the estimated 2 million seniors, most often low-income single women in their mid-70s to early-80s, who are housed through HUD subsidies or call HUD-assisted facilities home. HUD, a department that long ago began prioritizing the well-being of our most vulnerable seniors, has wavered in recent years on its commitment to take care of the oldest among our nation’s poor. I have the privilege of working directly with residents and staff of our 38 low-income supportive senior housing facilities, housing about 8,000 seniors across the country. Working with these buildings has transformed my understanding of what HUD-supportive housing is, and of who lives there. One thing has become particularly clear: We must include seniors in all of our conversations about publicly-funded housing.
I was disappointed that your remarks to the Senate Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs Committee did not include comments about affordable housing for seniors. However, I was pleased to read you indicated in your written responses to Sen. Sherrod Brown that the Section 202 program is “an important tool” for senior housing and that you will lobby President Trump for the inclusion of this vital program as part of a comprehensive infrastructure package. Across the spectrum of publicly-assisted housing, seniors are everywhere. Not only are they served by senior-specific programs, but they are a significant part of the population in every other category of HUD’s portfolio. Frankly, I am worried that within your focus on eliminating “government dependence,” you do not account that many people who benefit from HUD are retirees and disabled people whose incomes will never really improve, and whose need for housing assistance cannot be dismissed. Many of your statements spoke to the desire to get people off of public assistance and to move them towards gainful employment through a “development of innate talent” and “work requirements.” While economic success and independence are laudable goals to facilitate for the working poor, they are not realistic for fixed income older adults.
Many seniors living now in HUD assisted housing—who are in your terms “dependent” on it—have worked their entire lives and are still only able to afford housing by combining meager Social Security benefits with assistance from your department. While many of these individuals live in senior-specific facilities, about a third of households that make up public housing are senior-led homes or include a family member who is a senior. I believe it is important to remember that work should not be the sole focus when we discuss assisting those experiencing poverty. If we forget about the special needs required by millions of seniors who are now unable to work, we have committed a great injustice. I, and many senior housing advocates, believe the focus should instead be placed upon addressing the root causes of the shortage in affordable housing. We believe that accessing affordable housing is prevented by systematic issues including, but not limited to, predatory mortgage lending, a stagnant and unrepresentative COLA used for Social Security and astronomical price surges in many areas where seniors hoped to “age in place” due to gentrifying neighborhoods.
I am encouraged to know that you will be able to apply a health perspective on housing, because good health outcomes are incompatible with unstable or inappropriate housing. Further, housing can be a platform for prevention and early health intervention services. I look forward to the integration of your medical knowledge into your approach to HUD programs and hope that you will ensure “aging in place” and preventative care are tenets of your leading this department. Research tells us that ensuring the well-being of an aging person while they are healthy or maintaining a chronic condition prevents hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent at the end of that individual’s life. We know that these end-of-life prices surges can occur through Medicaid funded nursing home care or through receiving emergency medical services. We also know that this can be prevented when folks are able to “age in place” with comfort and dignity. More so, those in the supportive housing industry know that co-location of services and housing is crucial to maintaining one’s health as they age. Affordable, supportive housing not only allows people access to “healthy” aging, but helps people avoid injuries and unnecessary nursing home placements.
I think it’s only fair that a society be judged on the way it takes care of its oldest members. While we experience a growing population of seniors who are currently 75 years of age and older, the senior population, those aged 65 and over, is projected to double by the year 2030, from 35 million to 71.5 million. In 2010, more than 44,000 people aged 65 and over were homeless. In many ways, I am saddened our country has not done a better job of creating and preserving housing for older adults. However, I hope that I can appeal to you, as a man of faith, that we lift up and support our older neighbors who face significant financial barriers, and deserve a warm place to call home!
While I hope you will take my concerns to heart, I would love nothing more than for you to visit any of the 38 senior housing facilities my organization, B’nai B’rith International, sponsors across the United States from Maryland to California. We hope that a visit from you to any of our thriving communities would serve as a fact-gathering mission and support the good work that you will be leading!
Breana Clark, MSW