Comment | Seniors lack affordable housing

February 23, 2016

By Jennifer Hancock

Louisville's seniors are in trouble. The number of senior households in Kentucky grew by more than 80,000 over the past decade, but rising housing costs mean those who rent are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Today, more than 30 percent of senior renters in the Louisville metro area pay more than half their income in rent, according to Census figures analyzed by the Make Room campaign, a new national campaign to get renters on the agenda of our policymakers. That's up more than 10 percentage points since 2005, the largest increase of any metro area in the United States.

The struggles of seniors in Louisville are emblematic of a broad problem affecting the daily lives of seniors around the country.

The number of seniors is rising nationwide, but the number of seniors paying unaffordable rent is rising faster. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of seniors paying more than half their household income toward rent and utilities nationally rose by 34 percent in a period where the overall number of senior households rose by 25 percent, according to Make Room's statistics.

The increase in seniors who pay unaffordable rent is one component of an escalating squeeze on low- and middle-income people in America. Rents are rising, but wages are not, forcing more than one in four renters nationwide — 11.4 million households — to pay more than half their monthly income on rent and utilities.

Seniors who pay such a large share of their income just to keep a roof over their heads are often forced to make tough sacrifices, such as choosing between paying for rent and buying groceries or medicine. Rising housing costs disproportionately impact seniors who are unable to move somewhere else and often live on fixed incomes.

The Make Room analysis found that 43 percent of seniors with severe rent burdens have no income except for Social Security. Making matters worse, Social Security beneficiaries did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment this year, for only the third time in 40 years.

These are the challenges that we often hear at Volunteers of America Mid-States. We operate two housing programs for low-income seniors in Louisville, serving people like Mildred Anderson, 68, of Louisville.

Mildred served our country as a military medic more than 40 years ago, then worked for 25 years in the medical field. She lived an independent and comfortable life until 2007 when her health took a turn for the worse.

After a harsh fall, her doctor worried that she'd never walk again, but she was able to do so. She survived both cervical and kidney cancer that led to insurmountable medical bills and financial instability. The instability eventually forced her to vacate her home of 20 years and move in with her sister.

She applied for affordable housing in 2011 and after a four-year wait, she finally moved into Volunteers of America's Spanish Cove Senior Housing Community. Today, Mildred lives the independent life she had once enjoyed.

She has her own apartment, is surrounded by neighbors and her quality of life has greatly improved. Most important, she maintains the dignity that comes with having an affordable rent and the ability to care for her daily needs. We need to do more to create affordable homes for seniors like Mildred who have spent decades in the workforce, in most cases preparing well for retirement and making sound financial decisions.

On the federal level, we should support and expand existing programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Housing Choice Voucher program, both of which help make housing more affordable and accessible to low-income families and seniors.

As Mayor Greg Fischer and Louisville Metro Council look at the opportunities to increase our community's focus on affordable housing, it is imperative seniors are included and made a priority.

We wish that every senior in need had a story like Mildred's. Unfortunately, that is not the case — yet.

Jennifer Hancock is president and chief executive officer of Volunteers of America Mid-States.