It has been a busy 2017 at the Center for Senior Services (CSS), and we are pleased to report on our advocacy efforts. Throughout the year we have been advocating on a wide range of senior issues relating to health care (Medicare and Medicaid), Social Security and affordable housing. Our work included meetings on Capitol Hill, organizing tours of B’nai B’rith sponsored buildings and co-sponsoring rallies on affordable housing. During the year we were excited that our work was noted by the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), The Times of Israel and the New York Jewish Week.
Our advocacy efforts went into high gear in March when the White House’s proposed 2018 “skinny” budget was released, which called for a 13 percent reduction in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget. A few months later when the administration’s more detailed budget was announced, B’nai B’rith was severely disappointed that Section 202, which is housing that was developed for low-income seniors, was underfunded and the White House proposed a rental increase for residents.
Staying on top of the issue, the CSS team started visiting senator and representative’s offices on Capitol Hill that represent B’nai B’rith sponsored buildings. Specifically, we met with offices that work on the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. These committees are responsible for writing legislation that funds rental subsidies for the Section 202 program. During the course of these meeting we explained to staff members how damaging the White House’s budget would be for low-income Section 202 residents. While the 2018 budget has not been finalized we are hopeful that our advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill will lead to the Section 202 program being funded more.
In addition, we followed up those visits by inviting members of Congress and their staff to tour B’nai B’rith Section 202 buildings throughout the country. We are pleased to report that Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), representing both political parties, toured our sponsored properties. Furthermore, three of the four members who visited B’nai B’rith sponsored buildings work on the Appropriations Committees. These tours were a fantastic opportunity for members of Congress to see the benefits of the Section 202 program, and gave residents a chance to speak with their elected representative. Residents were able to directly tell their member of Congress the vital role Section 202 housing plays in their lives.
B’nai B’rith was also pleased to co-host with LeadingAge the “Save HUD 202” Rally and partner with the National Low Income Housing Coalition for the “National Housing Day of Action” over the summer. These rallies took place on Capitol Hill and featured representatives and senators who spoke about the need for affordable housing. We were certainly delighted members of Congress who represent B’nai B’rith sponsored buildings attended the event.
Our advocacy during the course of the year didn’t just stop with affordable housing. We spoke out against the White House and Congress’ attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After analyzing various proposed bills, B’nai B’rith was very concerned how these policies could negatively impact seniors. For example, many of the proposed replacement bills would have cut critical funding to Medicaid, allowed older Americans to be charged more for insurance, repealed vital taxes that help fund Medicare and waive important regulations that protect health care consumers. We spoke out on these issues by releasing press releases, blogs and joined with liked minded organizations opposing this legislation in a full page advertisement in Politico.
Recently, B’nai B’rith has been very vocal against the recently passed tax reform legislation. We expressed serious reservations about this bill because of the damaging impact it could have on funding for Medicare and Medicaid attributable to rising deficits that will give cover to members of Congress to slash spending. In addition, the negative consequences repealing the ACA’s individual mandate will have on older Americans. We brought our concerns straight to congressional offices during our regular scheduled Capitol Hill visits regarding Section 202. However, we certainly applaud Congress for not eliminating the Low Income Housing Tax Credit which is critical for affordable housing construction, and the medical expense deduction which is incredibly important to countless seniors with high health care costs.
The CSS team embarks on 2018 looking to continue our success from 2017. We will certainly look to invite more members of Congress and their staff to B’nai B’rith sponsored buildings, and advocate for the Section 202 program and other policies that are vital to seniors.
B’nai B’rith International Senior Services Staff: Mark Olshan, associate executive vice president of B’nai Brith International and director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services; Janel Doughten, associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services; Breana Clark, senior program associate; Evan Carmen, assistant director for Aging Policy.
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.
The right of every American to vote is one of the most cherished liberties in the United States. An individual’s ability to make his or her voice heard at the ballot box should be protected by all levels of government. However too often state legislatures are passing laws which make it more difficult for all people to vote, especially seniors. In particular, photo identification laws have made going to be polls too onerous for the elderly, and have chipped away at their ability to make their vote count on Election Day. In 2017, 17 states require citizens to show photo identification to participate in an election, which has put an unnecessary hardship on seniors, who are one of the least likely population groups to have a driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID.
A study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2006 (the latest year available) demonstrated that 18 percent, or eight million older voters, did not have a government ID. This can often be explained because many seniors give up their driver’s licenses, and consequently have an expired government ID.
Many people, upon hearing these numbers, might just say, “Why don’t seniors just get a government ID. How difficult can that be?” The problem for seniors is that obtaining government-issued identification can be cost-prohibitive and/or require extensive travel.
For example, a Harvard Law School study published by Richard Sobel, “The High Cost of ‘Free’ Photo Voter Identification Cards,” concluded that between public transportation expenses, fees associated with documents and waiting times, it could cost between $75 and $175 to obtain an ID. For low-income seniors who sometimes have to choose between health care and eating, a government ID is a luxury they just can’t afford. Furthermore, there are states that necessitate a birth certificate upon registering to vote. Many seniors were born before issuing birth certificates to a family was standard procedure. Even when a birth certificate can be located in a county clerk’s office, some elderly people would be required to travel to the cities in which they were born to pick up documentation. In addition, the validity of birth certificates at times can be called into question because it might contain minor errors regarding their name, especially for women who changed their last name when they married.
In 2014 Ruby Barber, a 92-year-old woman from Texas with an expired driver’s license, faced incredible obstacles to get an ID in order to vote. Incredibly, Barber was unable to obtain an identification card that would allow her to vote, despite providing her social security card, two utility bills, an expired driver’s license and a Medicare card. Barber couldn’t provide her birth certificate because one did not exist. Barber said, “I’m sure (my birth) was never reported because I was born in a farmhouse with a coal oil lamp.” Eventually Barber was granted her constitutional right to vote when her birthday was discovered in the 1940 U.S. Census. Baber’s story illustrates how burdensome voter identification laws can be for elderly Americans. These types of laws could discourage otherwise eligible voters from going to the polls on Election Day.
Outside of the obvious fact that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote, a small group of people can make a big difference in the result of an election. In 2014 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study, “Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws,” that indicated that stringent voter ID laws can suppress voter turnout by two to three percentage points. Further to the point, the study demonstrated that senior voter turnout was decreased by one to two percentage points because of changes to voter identification laws. While mere percentage points might not seem like a lot of people, this reduction in voter turnout can mean thousands of lost votes in a single state. Elections can be won or lost based on a few thousand votes.
Proponents of voter identification laws argue they are needed to stop voter fraud at the polls. While voter fraud at the polls is a reasonable initial fear to have, studies and statistics don’t provide any evidence of meaningful voter fraud. Voter fraud is just not a problem in the United States. Professor Justin Levitt at California’s Loyola School of Law in a study discovered only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation, between 2000 and 2014, when 1 billion ballots were cast. Obviously any voter fraud is unacceptable, still, I don’t think 31 allegations of voter impersonation is enough justification to make it considerably more difficult for seniors to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote.
In the U.S. we should be thinking of new and creative ways to increase voter turnout by passing legislation that ensures every senior entitled to vote is able to cast a ballot on Election Day. Sadly, state governments around the country have implemented policies that make the simple act of voting for seniors too burdensome all in the name of stopping fraudulent voting at the polls, a problem which doesn’t exist.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant 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.
By Evan Carmen
We were very pleased to welcome Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) recently to B’nai B’rith Apartments in Allentown, Pa. Dent has been an influential member of Congress since January 2005, and presently serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. This committee is responsible for appropriating money for the Section 202 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing program. B’nai B’rith is a proud sponsor of Section 202 HUD housing, was excited to show Dent all the great residents, staff and amenities in the building.
B’nai B’rith’s long history with Section 202 housing started in 1971 when we formed a partnership with HUD to sponsor housing for low-income seniors. The B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Network in the United States comprises 38 buildings and serves more than 8,000 people. B’nai B’rith International is the largest national Jewish sponsor of low-income housing for seniors in the country.
When Dent arrived he was treated to a tour of the building which featured an apartment unit, patio, common area, computer room and arts and crafts room. The tour allowed the representative to see all the building’s wonderful amenities and how Section 202 properties provide a community and family atmosphere for seniors. After the tour Dent spoke with about 90 B’nai B’rith residents regarding Section 202 rental subsidies, social security and health care. This Q-and-A allowed residents to directly tell the congressman how these federal programs affect their daily lives and for the congressman to share his perspective on important issues that impact seniors.
After the event Dent said, "I truly appreciate the great work B'nai B'rith has been doing here in Allentown, Pa. for decades. B'nai B'rith provides affordable housing options to many seniors they very much like it here so we are blessed to have this organization in the community. And we want to continue to support organizations like B'nai B'rith and other who providing affordable housing in 202 for so many seniors and elders across the country."
In attendance from the B’nai B’rith Housing community were B’nai B’rith International Associate Director of the Center for Senior Services Janel Doughten; B’nai B’rith Assistant Director for Aging Policy Evan Carmen; B’nai B’rith Senior Program Associate Breana Clark; as well as B’nai B’rith Apartments staff including Board President Barbra Butz; Project Administrator Bob Sipos; Property Management Assistant Kathy Andreas Heath; Service Coordinator Jennifer Leffler; Rental Assistant Jessica Yaich and Recertification Specialist Beth Gonzalez.
During the past few months we are happy to report that Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) have visited B’nai B’rith sponsored buildings in their districts. These congressional visits have given representatives firsthand exposure to the critical importance Section 202 buildings play in the lives of low-income seniors. Hopefully members of Congress leave Section 202 buildings with the understanding that they are not just a pile of bricks sitting on concrete—they are buildings that provide a safe and secure community for seniors, and more importantly a place for older Americans to call home.
By Rachel Knopp
On the 13th anniversary of B’nai B’rith’s Resident Leadership Retreat, 28 seniors joined together at Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa. with the intent to bring a greater sense of community back to their homes. These representatives came from the 38 low-income senior housing facilities from across the country that B’nai B’rith proudly supports.
As the largest national Jewish sponsor of federally subsidized housing for the elderly in the United States, B’nai B’rith has become a key advocate for low-income seniors on Capitol Hill. However, experiences like the Resident Leadership Retreat remind us that our residents are their own best advocates for their communities.
Janel Doughten, associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, reminds us of the importance of our resident leaders. “Unlike staff and the board of directors who go home at the end of the day, our residents call these facilities home at the beginning and end of each day. The goal is to help create a sense of community among the residents.”
The safety, security, and peace of mind that B’nai B’rith buildings have brought to residents lives were frequent topics of discussion between attendees. One resident from the B’nai B’rith building in Tucson, Ariz. said that finding his current building brought him out of homelessness. Many others shared in the sentiment including Bobbie Rudolph, from B’nai B’rith Apartments in Allentown, Pa., “I no longer have to worry about being evicted, due to not being able to pay my rent. The B’nai B’rith and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Supporting Housing for the Elderly Program allows seniors to retire and live with dignity.
With this in mind, it becomes clear why the resident leaders are so invested in strengthening their communities. Some representatives are long-standing officers of their building’s Resident Council, while others are self-proclaimed activists who demonstrated leadership by starting a recycling bin, like Liam Flanagan who lives in Covenant House, which is located in Brighton, Mass. Despite the range of displays in leadership, each representative arrived to Camp Perlman with an open mind to learn from one another.
Diane Daria, also from Covenant House, regards her building as providing a “built-in community.” Many of the seniors in B’nai B’rith housing facilities have lived alone for many years, like Daria. Before moving into her building, she lived by herself in a little bungalow located in the suburbs of Massachusetts. Now, Daria has the opportunity to connect with the over 250 residents that also call Covenant House home.
Still, Daria recognizes her responsibility to foster community. In addition to taking Russian and cultural classes to connect with her neighbors, she is an impassioned member of the newly-formed Residents Council. Throughout the retreat, Daria connected with other resident leaders to brainstorm ways to engage more residents.
During the day that focused on diversity, the group suggested ways to have more inclusive programming so that they can cultivate a community of acceptance within their buildings. While many buildings offer English as a second language classes, the group felt native-English speakers would benefit from Spanish or Russian as a second language classes as well. One resident, Jerry Fiman, of Covenant Place in St. Louis, shared his initiative to have a representative from each of the distinct cultural groups of his building acting as active members of the Residents Council.
The spirit of open-mindedness was exemplified that same night during a Havdalah ceremony to conclude the celebration of Shabbat. Most of the resident leaders are not Jewish, yet they approached the HaMotzi blessing that preceded each meal with respect and curiosity. Each resident leader placed their hands around the flame of the Havdalah candle, following a considerate discussion of interfaith values that morning. The culture of acceptance that was felt throughout the retreat is undoubtedly an integral part of their communities back home.
When the Resident Leadership Retreat concluded its week of living and learning, many expressed the instilled sense of confidence that the retreat provided. Helen Jordan from Pasadena, Texas expressed how the retreat not only fortified the beliefs she already had, but the curriculum gave her a means to implement them. A key component of the retreat was to harness this feeling of empowerment so that residents can serve as advocates once they return.
The retreat included an advocacy session led by Evan Carmen, B’nai B’rith assistant director for Aging Policy: “The goal of the advocacy session is to educate B'nai B'rith Housing Network residents on the best ways they can engage with their elected representatives; this way their members of Congress are aware of the issues which are important to them.”
One of the attendees, Martha Boyle, has confirmed a meeting with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) Boyle plans to discuss with him about rental subsidies as it relates to affordable housing for seniors.
For many of the resident leaders, a week at a sleep away camp tucked away in the Poconos Mountains provided an escape from their regular routine. For most low-income residents, a week of vacation has been an unavailable luxury to them for years. For others, the space to learn in a classroom environment was a reminiscent change, found to be invigorating.
From my perspective as a member of a younger generation, I am inspired by the commitment to learn and make a difference that I see in the generation before me. The leaders who I grew to regard as friends are the same leaders who pushed forward for the social changes I enjoy today. Since then, they have not quit moving and shaking. I regard the B’nai B’rith facilities across the country as a new ground for these leaders to make their mark.
Rachel Knopp is a student at The George Washington University studying International Affairs and Conflict Resolution. She is an Intern at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. In the spring of 2017, she studied Anthropology and Spanish in Cusco, Perú. Prior to interning at B’nai B’rith, she interned at The Israeli Embassy to the United States and the Israeli Mission to the United Nations
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