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During my time working at B’nai B’rith my boss, Mark Olshan—associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith and director of the Center for Senior Services—references the “good old days,” in regards to affordable senior housing. Up until 2011, Congress routinely appropriated hundreds of million dollars a year for the construction of new units. In total about 400,000 senior housing units were built. Unfortunately, from 2011 to 2016 Congress stopped appropriating money for new construction. Fast forward to 2021, and Congress over the past several years has started allocating money again for new senior housing. While we appreciate the funding, it’s nowhere near the level of dollars from the “good old days.” 

As politicos know, the White House and Congress are negotiating on infrastructure legislation, with the potential of making major investments in our country’s transportation systems, schools, high-speed broadband capabilities, affordable housing and more. As an affordable housing advocate, I appreciate the White House including housing as part of its infrastructure agenda. However, the White House and Congress need to ensure the final piece of infrastructure legislation signed by President Joe Biden includes money for senior housing. 

The demand for senior housing is real and not going away. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that in 2038 the population of older adults who are low-income will be 7.9 million, up from 5.3 million in 2018. Furthermore, the center reports that only about a third of older adults who qualify for rental subsidy receive the assistance. There are millions of older adults who need housing assistance and are not getting the help. 

Aside from infrastructure legislation, every year B’nai B’rith requests money for senior housing as part of the annual appropriations process. Like previous years, we are asking for $600 million for the construction of 6,700 new affordable senior housing units. A modest ask, given the desperate need for more housing. If 6,700 new units hit the market tomorrow, they would be rented in hours. Major investments in senior housing won’t go to waste. 

Funding senior housing is more than just brick and mortar, it’s the people and amenities inside. For example, infrastructure legislation must include money for additional service coordinators. Service coordinators work at the properties and connect residents with services in the community that allow seniors to “age in place” and not move to more institutional facilities that will inevitably cost the government more money. In addition, legislation must have a broadband internet component. The pandemic highlighted the importance of the internet allowing seniors to communicate with family, friends and health care providers from the comforts of their homes. Even once the pandemic is over, seniors are an age cohort which suffer from social isolation and mobility issues, making broadband access even more critical. 

Thankfully, there is movement on Capitol Hill to include senior housing as part of infrastructure. Chairwoman Maxine Waters of the House Financial Services Committee introduced a discussion draft entitled “Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2021,” which appropriated $2.5 billion dollars for senior housing and addresses the priorities I discussed above. Think about all the senior housing units, service coordinators and broadband access the program could afford with that type of additional funding. 

The White House’s motto is “Build Back Better,” and we are pleased to see that affordable housing is part of that mantra. Hopefully, Congress and the Biden administration can reach a deal to get this badly needed legislation to the President’s desk. Given the appetite in our nation’s capital to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, if we don’t make a serious investment in affordable senior housing, “If not now, when?”

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.