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Senior Co-Housing : An Elder Service

 

Home ownership is part of the "American Dream", but renting is the best and/or only option for millions of people.  For the people most in need, often the only affordable housing options are private rooming houses, room-and-board housing, or single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels.  The accepted, stereotypic image of this type of housing has had a well-deserved negative reputation.  Historically, this type of housing has been poorly managed and maintained, which often leads to rapid tenant turnover, frequent vacancies, vermin infestation, dilapidated appearance (leading to a typical NIMBY syndrome), drugs, alcohol, crime, and eventually police activity (effectively adding tax burdens on the public).  This leads a downward spiral of  tenant helplessness and hopelessness.

 

The 2009 policy paper by the Milllennial Housing Commission states, "the most serious affordable housing problem in America is the mismatch between the number of extremely low-income (ELI) renter households and the number of rental units available to them with acceptable quality and affordable rents".

 

According to the most recent census, over nine million American rental households were considered extremely low income (ELI).  A household's income is considered extremely low income if it is 30% or less of the median family income.  For most areas, the extremely low-income level is below $17,190 per year ($1,433 per month).  Statistically, a "household" is considered at least two individuals.  This translates for a single person to qualify as extremely low income to be $8,595 per year ($716 per month).

 

These households are found in every region throughout America and all metropolitan area types: central cities (large, medium, and small), suburbs, and rural areas.  These people include workers at low paying jobs such as fast food service employees, childcare providers, nursing home aides, hotel housekeepers, office cleaners, retail clerks, farm worker, and general laborers.   ELI households are also comprised of elderly and disabled people.  Incomes for many of these come from social security retirement, supplemental security income (SSI), supplemental disability income (SDI), small pensions, or various supportive relatives.  Finding affordable, safe housing can be a challenge for people of all ages.  It can be especially complex for older adults, who may have economic, physical, mental, or other limitations, as well as special needs. 

 

Of the 9,000.000 ELI households, approximately 52%, or 4,715,000, were households comprised of single individuals.  About one-third of these, or nearly 1,500,000 individuals, lack affordable housing.  affordable housing in this context means no more than 30% of one's income is spent on housing.  Almost 71% of single, extremely low-income renters spent more than one-half of their incomes for their housing.  The following information provided by the HUD office Of Policy Development and Research demonstrates the magnitude of need for this population:

  • Renter Households in the U.S. - 34,000,000
  • Extremely Low Income (ELI) households - 9,000,000
  • ELI households comprised of one person - 4,715,000
  • Percentage of ELI households lacking affordable housing - 31%
  • One person ELI households lacking affordable housing - 1,466,689

This national data does not reflect extreme housing shortage in a few states.  There is a shortage of rental housing units for ELI households in 42 state and the District of Columbia.  The two leading states with the highest percentages are those with the highest populations - California and New York.

 

The situation is getting worse each year.  Between 2003 and 2005, the shortage of rental units available to ELI households (due to the rapid rise in real estate values and the diminishing of real income) increased more than 100%.  Since 2006, despite the decline of real estate values in certain areas of the country, the need for real affordable housing for this economic sector continues to grow - mainly due to the ageing of the population and losses in most job sectors.  According to Doug Bibby in his 2008 article "Shifting Pieces: Driving Rental Housing Demand", between 2008 and 2015, the number of households seeking affordable housing is anticipated to increase in almost double digits due to uncertain economic times.  Additionally, there is no sustained national dialogue, effort, or desire to assist this silent, economically disadvantaged, growing minority.  If these trends continue over the next several years as the graying of America increases and the nation faces economic turbulence, the absolute number of extremely low-income people without affordable housing will increase exponentially. 

 

Cohousing living arrangements provide an alternative for ELI, where tenants have their own room, and access to a private, communal living room, bathroom and kitchen.  The utilities, furnishings, and regular maintenance are included as part of the monthly rental payment.  Most housing of this type operate with no government funding or subsidies, which adds further to the value as a sustainable solution for those of lower incomes.

 

For persons of both modest means and ELI, cohousing can combine affordability, access to transportation, a safe and decent living arrangement, and a chance to live a relatively independent, stable life among like-minded people.  This stability increases the individual's ability to pursue other goals such as supplemental employment, increased skills, and improved personal well-being.  for the seniors , it provides the ability to "age in place".

 

Aging in place is the single most important component in a quality senior cohousing environment.  This is what differentiates a typical rooming house from senior cohousing.  Well managed cohousing for seniors provides long term opportunities for social interaction and a shared-living community that has been determined by many social scientists to be an important element of healthy day-to-day living.  Shared, senior cohousing that is created in existing neighborhoods can provide many benefits for the community and the individual:

  • Reduces stress often associated with living alone;
  • Meets social and emotional needs through increased companionship;
  • Improves the potential for good nutrition through group meals;
  • Promotes self-determination and independence through interdependence;
  • Improves the safety of the living environment;
  • Helps prevent premature institutionalization of seniors;
  • Reduces the demand for costly nursing homes and related long-term care facilities;
  • Revitalizes and rehabilitates existing housing stocks near transportation systems;
  • Maintains property tax base needed in smaller communities;
  • Minimizes public expenditures for low-income housing; and
·         Provides investment opportunities for small investors, while promoting a private sector commitment to its less advantaged senior citizens.
 
Report by: National Alliance To End Homelessness, April, 2009
 
                      Article from Sacramento Bee, Wall Street Journal