As the largest national Jewish sponsor of federally subsidized senior housing in the United States, the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services (CSS) mission is to provide housing for low-income seniors in need, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. The CSS network comprises 42 buildings in 27 communities, serving 8,000 residents every year.
Once a B’nai B’rith senior apartment building opens its doors, a lot of effort goes into making it more than just a place to live. The buildings are more than just “bricks and mortar,” they are a community with support and activities. Along with dedicated staff, volunteers are the key to helping make the building a home, for all that live there.
Each building was initially the vision of a small group of B’nai B’rith members that realized there was a need in the community for affordable senior housing. Forming a volunteer board of directors, they oversee the entire building process from beginning to end. Once the building has opened, the local board of directors does not manage the building, per se, but oversees the operation of the facility by hiring building management, which is no small task. It is the volunteers of the board who are ultimately responsible to the residents, and to HUD.
Most boards are comprised of approximately 15 members from the greater community, with terms of service averaging two to three years. The board meets monthly, or every other month. However, most board members spend much more time in their board role than just attending a meeting. The officers of the board are the official face of the building, and, therefore, hold a lot of responsibility for a volunteer. They are the ones reviewing and approving documents with HUD, making sure there is an annual audit and signing financial documents.
A lot is demanded of the board members, and they do not take this responsibility lightly. Each board member has been recruited for their expertise. An accountant is able to advise the board regarding the monthly financial statements, and an attorney can help the rest of the board understand a legal proceeding. A great source for prospective board members is former staffers that have retired or taken a new position. These types of members are a great way for the board to understand issues from a management perspective, as well as making balanced decisions.
Although all of the buildings were originally sponsored by B’nai B’rith, there is a very diverse community of residents. Events that are held at the property are most successful when they reflect that particular resident base. The board of directors may sponsor a Seder over Passover or build a Sukkah during Sukkot. In either case, the event is open to ALL residents. They also sponsor holiday parties that may include lighting the menorah and decorating a Christmas tree, holding a Chinese New Year’s celebration, or honoring veterans on Russian Victory Day in May.
Beyond the members of the board, there are many more opportunities for individuals to volunteer and provide programming for the residents. One building has volunteers that run a fused glass jewelry making class, in which the residents make and then are able to sell as a fundraiser for the Resident Association. Most buildings have partnered with local schools—elementary, secondary, high school and college-age volunteers—to provide intergenerational programming. This may range from playing games, to dance performances, or even a joint sewing class: whatever makes for a fun program. The sky is the limit!
The largest group of volunteers in the building would be the residents themselves. From the volunteer floor monitors who check up on their neighbors and answer questions, to arranging book clubs, movie screenings, bingo—whatever the residents are interested in attending, the possibilities are endless! After all, they more than anyone know what activities the residents will attend.
The best way to make sure the residents of each building are involved in the building activities is through the Resident Association. Open to ALL residents, these associations generally conduct monthly meetings, provide programming and events for the residents, as well as work with management and the board of directors to solve problems or to disseminate information to the residents. It might be smokers not using the designated smoking area, or people not cleaning up after their pets, both of which are concerns for both management and the residents. Working together, representatives from the board, management and the Resident Association helps to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation.
We at the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services are very supportive of the Resident Associations, and provide training to the officers of each association at our Resident Leadership Retreat. Held every other summer, two officers of each association attend a week long retreat to learn how to be better leaders. They also share ideas and network, as well as have some fun, since the Retreat is held at a summer youth camp while the camp is in session.
Volunteers do make a difference!
This Expert Analysis piece is dedicated to a longtime volunteer that we lost this past March. Gloria Miller, better known as “Gloria from Peoria,” served on the board of directors and was the volunteer activities director of the Sam J. Stone B’nai B’rith Covenant House Apartments in Peoria, Ill. Gloria also served on the board of directors of the B’nai B’rith Apartments of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and was the longtime chair of the B’nai B’rith Resident Leadership Retreat.
She was my mentor, and I learned so much from her. May her memory serve as a blessing.
Janel Doughten is the associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, focusing on the subsidized senior housing program. She has been with B’nai B’rith for 23 years, and looks forward to leading the 15th Resident Leadership Retreat later this year. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
Since its founding in 1843, B’nai B’rith International has sought to fulfill the Mitzvah of Tikkum Olam (building a better world).
For us, this mandate has long meant work to ensure that older persons are able to age in place with dignity, regardless of their economic status. This, of course, supports the notion that these individuals, in the “golden” years of their lives, are entitled to live in safe, supportive and affordable housing that is appropriate for their particular needs.
Without affordable housing options, many older adults have historically found themselves having to go to nursing homes, well before they may actually need that level of care.
Since 1971, B’nai B’rith has worked in partnership with the federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to sponsor this type of housing, utilizing the programs established under the Federal Housing Act of 1959, as amended, which set out to articulate our federal housing policy to address this growing concern.
In general, this raises serious concerns about the availability of appropriate “support” services in addition to affordable rental housing units.
Think abut it…How many people do you know who are in their upper 80's or even past 90 years of age?
Established in 1959, the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program (known as Section 202) is the only HUD program that currently provides housing exclusively for elderly persons who have very low incomes. When enacted, this program was part of a “comprehensive” federal housing policy coordinated by the federal government.
It was developed as a “partnership” between the government and community based non-profit organizations (like B’nai B’rith) to supply safe, quality, affordable residential housing to older persons of limited incomes. The government would supply the financial resources to build the property, and the non-profit groups would supply the “sweat equity” to oversee the development and operations of the property. It was the perfect combination of federal and community resources joining forces to meet a burgeoning human need.
So...Where are we now?
From a high of almost 30,000 units of housing built between 1985 and 1988, we have seen a steady decline to just about 25,000 units constructed between 2000 and 2006. As for current and future spending, we have dropped to a ridiculously low 595 apartments funded for the entire country in 2011, and we are currently seeing zero dollars being appropriated for the construction of new affordable units for the elderly of limited income each fiscal year since 2012!
That means for each of the last three years of federal funding, there are zero dollars being appropriated for the construction of new apartment units for seniors of limited income.
Obviously, building and maintaining housing is expensive compared to providing rental assistance to persons to rent housing on their own (when they can). This has been the challenge for the Section 202 program to overcome. It is not easy to persuade legislators that housing seniors together in rental communities allows us to serve them, and society in general better, and at a lesser overall cost.
I can only think of the problems that those of us who are becoming ready to retire to our “golden” years will find in our way.
I wonder if it’s too late to consider having more children that can assist us with the help we will most probably need in the years to come…
In essence, the United States no longer has a federal housing policy when it comes to providing quality, safe, affordable housing for seniors of limited income.
Perhaps it’s time to re-think our Congressional priorities as our country continues to become even more gray!!
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.
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