As COVID-19 continues to plague our nation, Congress has spent months debating the best way to respond to the pandemic. It has debated economic stimulus for individuals, small businesses, state and local governments and the private sector. In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to provide an economic jolt to a stalled economy.
While stimulus checks and small business loans got most of the publicity, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) senior housing also received financial resources to better meet the challenges from COVID-19. B’nai B’rith’s Center for Senior Services, as the largest national Jewish sponsor of low-income, nonsectarian housing for seniors in the United States, is taking a keen interest in how stimulus legislation will impact senior housing. While the money in the CARES Act is helpful and appreciated, the virus is still impacting our country and requires further stimulus legislation.
Therefore, it was encouraging to see the House of Representatives pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which provided a financial boost for HUD assisted senior housing. This legislation provides $1.2 billion, which will enable buildings to hire more staff, purchase more personal protective equipment (PPE) and deal with decreased rents because of the virus. In addition, this money could help advance service coordination for buildings that have and don’t have a service coordinator. A service coordinator is a social service staff person that connects residents with services in the community.
Recently Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) introduced the Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act of 2020 in Congress. Like the HEROES Act, this legislation provides funding, but this bill specifically allocates $50 million in funding for increasing WiFi accessibility in senior housing. Additional funding for WiFi is crucial because it makes telehealth more readily available for older Americans and allows service coordinators to speak with residents while practicing social distancing.
As Congress deliberates further COVID-19 stimulus legislation, I hope the provisions from the Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act make their way into the final draft. During a time of national crisis, we are thankful that Rep. Porter and Chairwoman Waters are leading the efforts to ensure that senior housing has the resources in light of the pandemic.
B’nai B’rith has and will continue to advocate to congressional offices on how critical additional funding is for HUD assisted housing to combat the pandemic. The House has done their part passing the HEROES Act. It’s now time for Senate to do their own heavy lifting. Congress must reach a deal to ensure that senior housing and countless people, programs and state and local governments have the appropriate resources to meet the challenges of the day!
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
This piece originally appeared in B'nai B'rith Magazine's Winter 2017 issue. To read this and other stories from the issue, visit our magazine online here.
I’ve always thought of myself as a caring person, considerate of others and always thinking that we have a duty to be part of a society in which we respect and help one another where and when we can. Call me a do-gooder if you will, but please know that I am proud to wear that label.
With Congress back in session, I continue to be baffled by its continued attempt to turn back the clock in the face of such overwhelming evidence of the number of aging Americans who require assistance with finding a safe, secure place to live.
The United States used to have a national housing policy focusing in part on creating affordable housing for older persons of limited means. Section 202 of the Housing Act of 1959 was the only federal program that provided safe, affordable housing exclusively for low-income elderly.
The program was envisioned as a partnership between government and community-based nonprofits like B’nai B’rith to supply housing to these individuals. The government would supply the financial means to build the property, while the nonprofits would oversee the initial development and ongoing operations. Subsidies, such as Section 8 vouchers, would bridge the gap between what the tenant could afford and the cost of that apartment.
Over time, the funding mechanism for the program changed from a direct loan, with interest payments to the federal government, to a simple advance of funds for construction.
Since 1971, B’nai B’rith has been a partner with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in constructing and overseeing such properties. With 38 properties in 26 communities nationwide, we are the largest national Jewish sponsor of HUD-assisted senior housing. Our network comprises nearly 5,000 apartments available to more than 8,000 seniors.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the eligibility criteria were slightly refined. During the 1980s, “cost-containment” became the focus, and there was a shift to reducing the number of units being built and the overall construction cost. While budget driven, many of these decisions had an opposite effect. Having to replace and maintain systems cost more in the long term.
During the mid 1990s the program began to recognize and incorporate the physical and emotional needs of the residents, and the use of service coordinators become more prevalent.
With the aid of these professionals, residents were better able to obtain the support and services they might need to make aging-in-place more possible. HUD finally understood that providing some level of service support within the property often precluded a premature move to a more institutional setting for a resident, at a tremendous overall cost savings to society in general.
Even the definition of a well “independent” senior had changed. As these properties were basically apartments without medical or basic service supports when the program was initiated, one of the criteria for admittance into a HUD-assisted property was the ability to vacate your apartment in the event of an emergency. Today, residents are able to remain as long as they can direct the service supports around them to assist in vacating their apartment in the case of an emergency. Yet, today, nearly 40 percent of residents are considered frail and require assistance with some of the basic activities of daily living.
But, remaining in their homes with support beats having to move to a skilled-care or institutional facility many years before actually needing that level of medical support.
So, for a period of time, the program evolved and — despite severe budget cuts during the congressional efforts to reduce overall federal domestic spending — survive. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have taken pride in visiting these properties and publicly marvel at what they say is their tremendous value, not just for the individuals but for the whole community.
So, where do we stand now?
We know the country is growing older. The percentage of persons 65 and up is a larger percentage of the total population, growing from 35 million (12.5 percent) in 2000 to 49.5 million in 2016 (15 percent) to an expected 71.5 million (19.4 percent) by 2030. Compounding the issue is the increase in the number of persons 85 and older — 6.2 million in 2016, projected to grow to 6.9 million by 2020 due to our increased longevity.
But, the senior population’s sustained growth has not been matched by a corresponding growth in affordable housing. Currently, data show that there are at least 10 to 12 people on a waiting list for every available subsidized unit. The funding to create more of these properties has dried up. Currently, there are no federal dollars available to create new housing for this most vulnerable, growing population.
Where we housing advocates need to expand our efforts is to combat proposals currently being introduced in Congress that would charge current residents even more of their very low income to simply stay put. Even worse are attempts to cut subsidies completely, which could effectively throw current residents out of their apartments, and potentially into the street.
Remember, older persons must already have very low-incomes to qualify — below half of the area median income. Once deemed “income eligible,” they must pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for rent. If they have no income, they pay no rent. And we have a number of those individuals residing in our senior housing network. Bottom line is that these applicants were either homeless, near homeless, or at best, very low-income individuals.
Congress has recently debated amendments to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill that would reduce these subsidies while increasing tenants’ contributions from 30 to 35 percent of their meager incomes and require them to pay a minimum amount of rent, or lose the apartment entirely.
And, taking this even further, 139 House members voted for an amendment to reduce funds for project-based rental assistance by $266 million in the current fiscal year, thus jeopardizing approximately 3,000 apartments which could be affected by this action. Fortunately the amendment failed, but the threat remains.
The numbers are alarming, and the White House is threatening to make a bad situation worse. The administration’s budget proposals include the most dramatic cuts to HUD programs since the 1980s, gutting federal housing assistance and redirecting the savings to “higher priority areas.” What could be of higher priority than making certain that vulnerable older persons of very low income status have access to safe, affordable and adequate housing?
Mark D. Olshan, Ph.D. began his career with B’nai B’rith in 1983 when he was hired as its Director of Senior Housing. He currently serves as Director of the Center for Senior Services and Associate Executive Vice President of B’nai B’rith International. He was awarded the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award in 2000. To view some of his additional content, click here.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the Executive Vice President at B'nai B'rith International, and has spent nearly all of his professional life working on behalf of Jewish organizations. As the organization's top executive officer, he directs and supervises B'nai B'rith programs, activities and staff in the more than 50 countries where B'nai B'rith is organized. He also serves as director of B'nai B'rith's Center for Human Rights and Public Policy (CHRPP). In that capacity, he presents B'nai B'rith's perspective to a variety of audiences, including Congress and the media, and coordinates the center's programs and policies on issues of concern to the Jewish community. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
Dr. Dvir Abramovich serves as chairman of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission in Australia. To learn more about the commission's programs and policies, Click Here.
"Let's not mince words,” President Obama told an audience at American University on August 5, in defense of the Iran nuclear agreement. “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon."
The following day, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took issue with the dichotomy offered by the president. “Some say the only answer to this is war. I don’t believe so,” Schumer said. “I believe we should go back and try to get a better deal…The nations of the world should join us in that.”
This disagreement between two senior officials of the same party raises two crucial questions for both Democratic and Republican members of Congress to ponder as they decide how to vote on the Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA) when Congress passes judgment next month. Is there really no alternative to the deal other than war? And do opponents of the agreement actually advocate war?
The answer to the second question is almost universally no. Many of the deal’s fiercest critics, such as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have called not for war, but for a better agreement. So why would the JCPOA’s supporters imply that their opponents prefer war as a policy option?
Framing the issue as a diplomacy-vs.-war dilemma helps the deal’s backers channel unhappy memories of the debate that preceded the U.S. operation in Iraq 12 years ago. We chose to enter a costly war once before, the reasoning goes; let’s not repeat that mistake. Invoking the specter of war also minimizes the arguments of those who oppose the JCPOA on the merits; it is easier to quell serious debate if critics can simply be dismissed as warmongers.
But regardless of how one felt about the prospect of military conflict in 2003 or 2015, it seems clear that other options remain available with respect to Iran today. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey acknowledged as much in his recent testimony before the Senate. “I can tell you that we have a range of options and I always present them” to the president, he told the Senate panel.
Increased sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of military force could go a long way toward securing a better agreement than the one currently being deliberated over. With sanctions still in place – or tightened – Iran would have a strong incentive to slow its march toward nuclear weapons if the contracts with multinational energy firms Iran hopes to negotiate are suddenly put at risk. Also in peril would be Iran’s access to the more than $100 billion in frozen assets it hopes to retrieve.
DIME, the military and government acronym for soft power tools, accounts for the diplomatic, informational, military and economic aspects of American power. All of these instruments could be applied to maintain pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program while the U.S. and its partners seek a better agreement.
The U.S. has significant leverage against Iran, a fact that was reflected during the negotiations by Iran’s continued insistence on the immediate lifting of sanctions to ease the country’s troubled economic plight. If, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice said earlier this year, “A bad deal is worse than no deal,” how did we arrive at a stark choice between this flawed agreement and war?
Certainly the debate over the JCPOA needs to be informed by a clear understanding of America’s options and how best to maximize them in order to prevent a nuclear Iran. In that light, false dichotomies such as diplomacy vs. war are unhelpful distractions.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been the B’nai B’rith International director of legislative affairs since 2003 and the deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He has worked in Jewish advocacy since 1998. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
Iran—which publicly and proudly declares its intent to wipe Israel off the map—has been a major contributor to building the financial and military capacity of Hezbollah. It is directly responsible for developing the infrastructure of terror in Central and South America in order to, among other goals, have a base from which to attack the United States.
Iran has been clearly implicated in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the AMIA bombing two years later of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor charged with investigating the AMIA bombing, was found dead in his home earlier this year after presenting an avalanche of evidence about Iran's terrorist activities throughout the region. Most recently, he accused Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, her foreign minister and other members and allies of the government of having obstructed the investigation of Iranian involvement in the attack in order to secure an oil deal with Iran.
In fact, just a few months ago, an Iranian diplomat based in Uruguay hurriedly left the country after rumors that he was involved in suspicious activities, purportedly involving a plan to bomb the Embassy of Israel in Montevideo.
Venezuela has proven the linchpin of this Iranian activity, with the country providing passports to members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and with ties including a direct air link, Iranian investments in “auto, bicycle, and cement” factories, and joint petroleum and mining ventures. Reports of military cooperation abound. Iran has steadily infiltrated Latin America in this manner, creating strong and dangerous ties with countries in the Chavez-Castro alliance (the Bolivarian Alternative for our Americas, or ALBA) including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, where Iran has signed dozens of economic agreements.
These avenues of influence are described by security analyst Joseph Humire as Iran’s pattern of penetration, evolving through its cultural, diplomatic, economic and military influence. It is clear that Iran maintains Latin America as a strategic priority for its global positioning.
It is in the context of all this manipulation that the United States, as a member of the P5+1, held negotiations and signed a deal with Iran with the intention of curbing its nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief. The Iran nuclear deal has been evaluated at length, and has been heavily criticized from broad reaches of the political spectrum.
It is odd, then, that through all the debate and discussion, there still remains the question that everyone has seemingly failed to ask: what will be the impact of the Iran nuclear deal in our own backyard? One has to ask what effect sanctions relief will have on Iranian financial and material assistance to Hezbollah and other regional proxies throughout the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere.
The economic sanctions that at least strained Iranian endeavors over the past three decades will be lifted. There is no doubt that the half-trillion dollar jackpot Iran is slated to receive will be directly funneled into those activities we dread most: the exportation of Iranian aggression and anti-Semitism. These funds, returned to the coffers of a known state sponsor of terrorism, will surely make their way toward financial and material assistance to Hezbollah and other regional proxies. As it concerns U.S. national security, one can’t help but flatly reject the far-reaching concessions of the P5+1 as a direct threat to our interests regionally, let alone globally.
The reaction in Latin America has, thus far, been as one might expect. Kirchner has praised the agreement, while questioning local critics of the AMIA memorandum pact, surely a failed attempted to bless her own deal with Iran in the face of mounting pressure. The president of Colombia also congratulated President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for their “courage” in securing the deal, perhaps related to Colombia’s close relationship with the United States.
But with history as our guide, this agreement will do more harm than good. The expanded presence of Iran in Latin American should have, at the outset, given the United States pause, given a known regime in Tehran that supports terrorism as an officially sanctioned tool of national power. That Iran remains heavily invested in the region’s shift to the left and the anti-U.S. sentiment it provokes is hardly surprising. The fact that regional powers do not recognize the danger within their own borders is naïve at best, ignorant at worst.
While a nuclear Iran would trigger proliferation and instability throughout the Middle East and beyond, the easing of sanctions will be found to provide an umbrella for Iran’s terror proxies around the globe. There has been no accountability for Iran’s decades-long history of deception and denial over their nuclear ambitions and past links to terrorism, and there is no reason to give Iran the benefit of the doubt now.
Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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