Lack of affordable, accessible housing leaves some older residents with limited options

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Stephanie Karluk helps people living in nursing homes transition back into the community. She’s a housing specialist for the Olmstead Housing Subsidy at the Southern Tier Independence Center. (Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo/WSKG).

Stephanie Karluk stood under the porch awning of a beige house on the West Side of Binghamton in October. She was checking out a potential apartment… but not for herself.

Karluk works for the Olmstead Housing Subsidy through the Southern Tier Independence Center. Her job is to help people living in nursing homes transition back into the community. The program pays 70 percent of someone’s rent, and helps with the security deposit and other costs.

But the first step is finding a suitable, affordable apartment, and that is getting increasingly hard to do. But Karluk thought she found a good one.

It’s a ground-level, one-bedroom apartment, with only a few steps to get in. After being turned away by multiple landlords, she was excited that this landlord seemed receptive.

“A lot of times, they hear ‘subsidy’ and run the other way, and that’s not legal. So it’s really great, the place is great, they seem great. It’s kind of a gem,” Karluk said.

But two weeks later, Karluk had not heard back from the landlord.

“They want to get out so badly, but there’s nothing available.”

With rent on the rise across the country and a lack of physically-accessible housing stock, some experts worry older adults will end up in nursing homes, even if they don’t have to be in one.

Karluk’s client has been waiting in a nursing home for over a year, even though he doesn’t need a home health aide and doesn’t have serious mobility issues. Five apartments have fallen through for him already.

A couple of the landlords didn’t want to do routine fire inspections, Karluk said. One apartment had front stairs that were unsafe and in disrepair. And sometimes, a landlord will find a different tenant who doesn’t rely on a subsidy, or simply not call back.

Before searching on the private market, Karluk makes sure to register all the people she helps for local, accessible, affordable housing options. But waitlists for those complexes can be up to two years.

In the meantime, Karluk is looking for any apartments on the market, which is already tight. And the people she helps are stuck waiting in nursing homes.

“I have the participants calling me saying, ‘Hey, have you found me an apartment yet?’ And I feel frustrated for them too, because they want to get out so badly, but there’s nothing available. Either things are getting grabbed up by students or things are literally uninhabitable,” Karluk said.

She even said one client was so frustrated and tired of waiting for an apartment that he checked himself out of the nursing home he was living in. She said he ended up unhoused, living by the river.

“The housing situation is just so, so bad that people will live by the river rather than wait in the nursing home for an apartment to open up,” Karluk said. “It’s at a point where… we can’t ignore it anymore.”

“We don’t think about the home part.”

Meghan Jenkins Morales is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin. But she used to have the same job as Karluk. In Illinois, she helped people transition from nursing homes into independent living.

Morales ran into the same problem; she just couldn’t find housing for people. Now, she studies how high housing costs can force people into nursing homes.

“When we think about nursing homes, we don’t think about the home part. We don’t think that this is also a housing option. Yes, there are services, but it’s a housing option for folks. And access to affordable housing is a piece of the puzzle,” Jenkins Morales said.

In a 2020 study, Jenkins Morales and a colleague found that people who struggled to pay rent ended up in long-term care facilities earlier than those who weren’t dealing with the burden of high rents.

“Even people with the same level of health for instance. If you are an older renter and you’re experiencing unaffordable housing costs, you’re more likely to move to a nursing home,” Jenkins Morales said.

She said investing in affordable housing is crucial to prevent people from ending up in nursing homes, simply because they can’t find housing.

John Bernardo, executive director of the SEPP Group, which provides accessible, affordable housing to older adults and families. (Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo/WSKG)

“Our suggestion is to apply earlier than you think you’re going to need housing.”

There are some housing options for older residents in the Southern Tier. For example, The SEPP Group is a not-for-profit organization that provides affordable housing to low-income older adults and families. It’s been around for over 50 years.

The SEPP Group’s apartments are accessible, and most have support services like nurse case managers, service coordinators and community activities.

Kristina Casey is a resident service coordinator for the SEPP Group. She travels from building to building, helping people with anything from signing up for Medicaid or SNAP benefits to finding home care.

“I help them apply or manage long-term care, and get them services and aides in their home, to keep them there longer. That’s the whole goal; I want you to stay here as long as you are able to,” Casey said.

But SEPP apartments, and the services and support they come with, are in high demand. John Bernardo, the executive director, said they tell people to expect a one- to two-year wait for an apartment.

“Our suggestion is to apply earlier than you think you’re going to need housing, so that you’re on our lists,” Bernardo said.

There are a couple of reasons for the long wait times. Demand is high. The aging population in the area is growing. And older homeowners may be struggling to maintain their homes, or need better accessibility, and are moving into the rental market.

It’s also expensive to renovate and build truly accessible housing that is suitable for older residents.

“The housing stock is tired, much of it is tired. And there are a lot of properties that I wouldn’t want my relatives to live in, in terms of the condition. So we’re in need… and a number of developments are being proposed. Hopefully, in the coming year, two years, three years, we’ll begin to satisfy that need,” Bernardo said.

Bernardo said that there are a number of new projects SEPP is working on, but need will likely continue to go up.

“There’s still an awful lot of seventy, eighty, ninety-year-olds that can still live independently, that are in need or will be in need. People are living longer. [Casey] is as busy as she’s ever been. So how quickly will we satisfy [the need]? I’m not sure, it’s tough to predict,” Bernardo said.

“They’re paying over half of their income on housing, they’re living in inadequate housing, or both” 

An estimated four percent of housing in the country has basic accessibility features, such as no-step entries, ground-floor living, and wide doors and hallways for wheelchair access. Less than one percent is fully wheelchair accessible.

That’s according to Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the Housing an Aging Society program at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Study.

Molinsky said another problem is that older residents who qualify for housing assistance from federal subsidy programs aren’t always being helped.

Housing aid isn’t an entitlement, like Medicare or Social Security. And there simply isn’t enough funding to meet the need. Molinsky said in 2019, the federal government served only about 36 percent of very low-income older adults who qualified for assistance.

“The remainder are people with very heavy cost burdens. They’re paying over half of their income on housing, they’re living in inadequate housing, or both,” Molinsky said.

There are a variety of fixes that need to happen to address the issue, she said. For one thing, housing needs adequate funding on the federal level.

Communities need to be building more housing and different kinds of housing, so that people have options that meet their needs.

“Not just building single-family homes, but thinking about multi-families, accessory-dwelling units. Options for smaller households, older households, who need a different kind of house than they needed when they were raising children,” Molinsky said.

All in all, Molinsky said it’s going to be more complicated than just one solution. But, she said, at least the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the idea of the need for community-based services and accessible housing to the forefront.

Have you or a loved one struggled to find accessible, affordable housing? Have a tip? Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo is investigating the lack of local housing for older residents and people with disabilities. Contact her at 607-729-0100 ext. 384 or ptaylorvuolo@wskg.org.