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By Mark D. Olshan
Associate Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International

It is somewhat bittersweet that I have been asked to share my thoughts on our ongoing seniors’ program. While I’ve written for the magazine in the past, I’ve now been asked to focus on aging policy and offer insights from my perspective, as a baby boomer and a B’nai B’rith staff member for 33 years.

Rachel Goldberg, who served as our director of aging policy and authored this column for many years, has moved on to the AARP, or the “big” house, as we playfully refer to the country’s largest advocacy group for seniors. For more than 13 years, Rachel was my right hand in analyzing, reporting and generally trying to make sense of the myriad changing policies and programs that affect our aging population. We are grateful for the many years she spent with us. She will be missed.

But we’re not the only ones experiencing changes. As you are no doubt aware, the entire country is in the midst of a sea change, affecting the role of the federal government in our lives. For B’nai B’rith, this presents an enormous challenge, as a new administration with an announced intention of cutting back on federal programs takes office. Not the least of these is providing low-cost housing to seniors.

I began at B’nai B’rith as the director of our Senior Citizens Housing Program. Some years earlier, a group of dedicated B’nai B’rith volunteers, all experts in the building trades, petitioned the organization to allow them, under B’nai B’rith auspices, to sponsor affordable housing for low-income seniors in their communities.

Using a remarkable program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that made grants available to nonprofit sponsors, this group provided the “sweat equity” and opened the first B’nai B’rith-sponsored senior community in 1971 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Since then, the B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Network has grown to be the largest national Jewish sponsor of HUD-assisted housing in the country. It is currently available in 28 communities nationwide, and we’re proud to say that nightly 8,000-10,000 seniors call a B’nai B’rith sponsored property home.

Obviously, we take this commitment to these communities and to our residents seriously. That’s why we work throughout the year to provide resources, training and information to the dedicated people who manage, lead and staff these properties.

Our program exists for the benefit of the residents and their extended families. That’s why we do what we do. But, we cannot do it alone. We need the government’s help because housing costs money. And we are committed to working with the federal, state and local governments to provide the resources to make affordable housing a reality.

For 30-some years, I have led the organization’s efforts to advocate for the federal housing finance program that has allowed us to build such excellent communities, and to continue to provide them to low-income residents at a fraction of market rate rents. As an advocate, I champion not only the current residents, but the tens of thousands of people currently on waiting lists for low-income housing like those we sponsor. I speak on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of boomers who will find themselves, very shortly, in retirement, and in similar need.

The “graying of America” is not something in the far-off future. It is here now and will only grow larger. Every day, more people turn 65. B’nai B’rith, along with other nonprofit groups, had been instrumental in shaping, expanding and improving HUD’s housing program for the elderly. But, the program is no longer being funded. This has put the future in jeopardy for residents, both present and future. And that is unacceptable.

The program is fiscally troubled. Affordable housing is scarce, and we need to build more for moderate and low-income people. Affordable housing appropriate for the needs of older adults, and where services can be brought to them in a more cost-efficient way, is essential. But building housing—something we absolutely must do if we want to address the long-term affordable housing crisis in this country—is more expensive than simply subsidizing rents in existing apartments.

On average, nationwide, there are more than 10 people waiting for every low-income rental unit available. In other words, we must build, but we don’t have sufficient federal resources to do it.

The key may be a combination of vigilant advocacy and a new strategy supported by recent housing research. One thing the government is very good at is counting things: From missiles bought, to meals served, to millions taxed, the government keeps a tally. But it is not as good at counting how spending in one area can save money in another.

We often say Washington works in silos: lots of communication (and counting) up and down a federal department but very little communication between them. This poses many problems, especially when people’s needs don’t fit into one of those silos. In the 1980s, the federal government established a task force across departments, including housing and health, to work on homelessness. It turned out that many of the homeless were mentally ill, had substance abuse problems, were veterans and, in some cases, all three. So, solving the problem of homelessness really meant tackling a variety of issues.

With elderly housing, we know there is a similar crossover because supportive housing for older adults, with appropriate services, is an alternative to unnecessary nursing home placements and other pricier options. Many of our residents are able to live independently with support, but without those services, many would be unable to do so; and, with no financial resources, a nursing home placement through Medicaid would be their only alternative. A month in a nursing home costs Medicaid about $8,000. A year in a nursing home costs just under $100,000. For one person! So yes, housing is expensive, but so is health care. Combining the two, taking advantage of economies of scale, work to the long-term benefit of the resident and, at the same time, saves money on health care. So, if new research on the health care savings generated by affordable housing is taken into account, building new housing doesn’t seem so expensive. And, that’s just one way in which subsidized housing can reduce health care spending.

Housing is necessary and more affordable than other options, and it meets the needs and wants of older adults. People do not want to be in a nursing home if they have more independence with some regular service support. The bottom line is that spending money on bricks and mortar can save money by reducing the amount spent on health care. Hopefully, this will help the number crunchers in Washington to see the light.

Over the years, I haven’t had many opportunities to be on the front lines of these policy debates, but I guess it’s time to get back into the game and step up to the plate.