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Picture Mark D. Olshan

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.

The Need…

The “graying” of America has been well documented. The percentage of persons aged 65 and older is making a larger and larger percentage of the total population, growing from 35 million (12.5 percent) in 2000 to 71.5 million (19.4 percent) by 2030. 

Additionally, and compounding the issue, is the growth of the “oldest” old, those individuals who are aged 85 and older, who are becoming a larger share of the elderly population due to our increased longevity. 

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? 

The Problem…

While the sustained growth of the senior population is well documented, it is not supported by a corresponding growth in affordable housing units to provide for this increasing demand. Currently, there are at least 10 people on a waiting list for every available subsidized elderly housing unit and, even a number of HUD studies recommend building 10,000 new units of elderly senior housing every year until 2020 to even begin to meet the increased demand.

That’s only five years away! 

From a personal perspective, I’ll be 74 years old then, and I’m only the first year of the “baby boomer” generation. The tsunami of older persons to follow is staggering, and I believe, will overwhelm every affordable housing and supportive services program currently available. 

Adding to this crisis is the fact that the recent recession robbed many older adults of their primary wealth—the value of their home—while also taking a bite out of retirement savings. For us boomers, and for future generations, the older adult population will have as much, if not more need for affordable options than the elderly of the past.

The Solution…

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…What happened??

Generally, there have been a few distinct phases of the program from its inception to the present. In the 1960s and 1970s the eligibility criteria were refined. In the late 70’s and 80’s the focus began to shift to reducing the actual costs of construction. 

During the mid 1990s the program began to recognize and incorporate the physical needs of the residents above and beyond the bricks and mortar and the use of “service coordinators” became more prevalent which helped individuals to access 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 housing facility often precluded a premature move to a more institutional setting for a resident, at a tremendous cost savings to society in general. Think about it. If people can remain in their homes—whether owned or rented—with assistance and services to help them with a few basic needs, isn’t that better than moving to a nursing home before you need to?

The Section 202 Program for the Elderly, while suffering somewhat less total units being funded, was finally getting the recognition and understanding it so richly deserved.

Unfortunately, Congressional priorities began to change and brought with it significant changes in federal funding allocations for most discretionary programs. Number one on the list was HUD, and its budgets became more and more squeezed. Obviously, this significantly impacted the continued development and operation of the affordable senior housing programs 


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 2000To view some of his additional content, Click Here.