How the Affordable Housing Crisis Is Impacting Low-Income Seniors

There are 1,686 public housing units reserved for seniors and disabled people in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley and several times as many people are waiting for a vacancy.


The Morning Call

By Peter Hall

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- When Benjamin Cross was evicted from the rundown motel room he had called home for nearly seven years, his friends couldn't bear the thought of him becoming homeless.

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You can't put an 80-year-old man that has a walker out on the street during the day and into a shelter at night," said Kathy Burns.

Burns and her husband, Len Biehl, took Cross, whom they had known for less than a year, into their Lower Macungie Township home in September, thinking he could stay a few weeks. Cross moved into their spare bedroom, ate at their table and, with Biehl and Burns' help, began his search for a place to call his own.

Two months later, Burns, Biehl and Cross had grown closer, but also frustrated after they encountered yearslong waiting lists as they searched for an apartment Cross could afford on an income of less than $10,000 a year from Social Security.

We're having problems now with low-income affordable housing," said Cross in an October interview in Biehl and Burns' living room. "A lot of these facilities ... the housing complexes, are no longer accepting applications."

Although Cross was able to secure a grant through the Lehigh Valley Conference of Churches to cover his first month's rent and security deposit, nearly every agency he approached turned him away because they had no room, he said. Market-rate housing was far beyond affordable and the only subsidized apartment offered to Cross was on the second floor of a building with no elevator -- a poor fit for his limited mobility.

About two weeks after Cross spoke about his frustration, his sense that he was imposing on Biehl and Burns led him to retreat again to a motel room, where he quickly burned through his meager savings and left his friends worried and upset.

Cross' experience is symptomatic of an affordable housing crisis that forces thousands in need to wait for housing, doubled up with relatives or staying in emergency shelters, advocates say. For seniors, who may have special needs such as homes without stairs or accessible bathrooms, the hunt for suitable affordable housing can be even tougher. There are 1,686 public housing units reserved for seniors and disabled people in the Lehigh Valley, and several times as many people are waiting for a vacancy.

The demand far outstrips the supply," said Daniel Farrell, executive director of the Allentown Housing Authority.

For example, in Allentown there are 668 senior and disabled public housing units, and 96 percent were occupied in November. The vacancies were only temporary -- because of the time it takes to prepare an apartment and screen a new resident after someone moves out, Farrell said.

The waiting list for 147 apartments at John T. Gross Towers on West Allen Street has 1,171 applicants. The list for Central Park's 71 apartments on Wahneta Street has 877 applicants, and the authority's other senior housing properties have similar backlogs.

Public housing authorities also administer the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's housing choice voucher program -- also known as Section 8 -- that helps low-income families, including seniors, pay rent in qualifying private rental properties.

That program is also vastly oversubscribed, said Dan Beers, executive director of the Lehigh County and Northampton County housing authorities.

The Lehigh County housing choice voucher program has been closed to new applications for nearly a year. The last time the authority opened the application process, it received 2,000 in 60 days, Beers said. And because voucher funding is not adjusted for inflation, it helps fewer people each year as rents increase, Beers said.

People 62 and older make up about 5% of the homeless population -- nationally and in the Lehigh Valley -- and the number of senior citizens living in emergency or transitional housing is increasing as the United States' population ages. It rose 69% between 2007 and 2017, according to HUD's Annual Homelessness Assessment Report.

In Lehigh County, among 815 people identified as homeless last year, 36 were senior citizens. In Northampton County, among 304 people identified as homeless, 17 were senior citizens, according to data collected by the region's Coordinated Entry and Homeless Management Information System, a HUD-sponsored tool for tracking, assessing and aiding homeless people.

Advocates say there's reason to believe the number of homeless seniors is undercounted. HUD defines homelessness as living in a place not intended for human habitation or fleeing domestic violence. People such as Cross, who move in with a friend or relative or bounce between other people's homes, aren't considered homeless by the federal government.

"Unfortunately the government doesn't count couch-surfing as homelessness," said Christine Rinker, executive director of Pathways, an agency operated by the Lehigh Valley Conference of Churches to assist those facing homelessness.

The government considers him housed because he is living somewhere that is for living as opposed to an abandoned building or a car," she said.

The day before Thanksgiving last year, Biehl peeked inside Cross' motel room refrigerator and found only half a quart of milk, margarine and some lunch meat. That didn't sit right with Biehl, who had befriended Cross while delivering his prescriptions from a local pharmacy.

Biehl told his wife about Cross the next day, as the retired couple hurried to prepare for holiday guests.

"Everything just got crazy, and she says 'Not for nothing, but why didn't you go get Ben and bring him for dinner?'" Biehl said.

After dinner, they took a big plate of leftovers to Cross.

For the next nine months, Biehl and Burns looked out for Cross, making sure his pantry was full. They went to court with him when he faced eviction over the $3,300 in back rent he owed. Cross said he withheld his rent to get the owners to address problems, including mold and a lack of heat in his room.

Although District Judge Michael Faulkner ruled in favor of the landlord, Faulkner said he was sympathetic to Cross' case, and reached out to landlords he knew. But nothing they offered was close to meeting Cross' meager budget.

Road to Homelessness

Cross, now 81, grew up in north Philadelphia and said he was stricken as a child with meningitis.

"The doctors told me they'd given up ... called me a statistic and told my parents to make my final arrangements," he said.

As a sickly child, Cross said he grew up not strong enough for manual labor and without much of an education, so he worked as a short-order cook, washing dishes and, for a time, as a cameraman for a local television station.

He also served time in prison for non-violent crimes, including a 3 1/2-year term, he said, in federal prison in the mid-1970s for a drug offense. Under federal guidelines, such an old conviction would not bar a person from public housing.

Cross said he once owned a home in Philadelphia, but lost it when he used it as collateral for bail and then failed to appear for court. After that, he rented houses and apartments. He moved to the Lehigh Valley in the early 1970s to escape the grit of life in Philadelphia and be closer to a woman with whom he had a relationship, he said. About a decade ago, he had a house in Allentown with government subsidized rent, but said he lost it after he chose to live with and care for a friend who was dying.

That, Cross said, put him on the path to living in an Allentown motel, where the rent grew to consume all but $13.10 of his monthly Social Security check.

A study this year by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that the number of senior citizen households paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing has grown to an all time high of 10 million. (Review and download the full report below.) HUD considers that a threshold at which people are likely to have trouble paying for food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

Among senior citizens who rent and earn $15,000 or less, nearly three-quarters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That means a record number of seniors will lack affordable housing options as they age and the demand for housing assistance is expected to soar in coming decades, the Harvard study found.

The growth is a result of the enormous Baby Boomer generation reaching its senior years, as well as people living longer and economic factors such as the Great Recession and income inequality for minorities, the study said.

A coalition of government, business, nonprofit and faith-based organizations called the Regional Homelessness Advisory Board works to improve availability and access to affordable housing in the Lehigh Valley. Among its objectives are identifying opportunities and securing funding to build affordable housing but the challenges are formidable, said Alan Jennings, director of Community Action Coalition of the Lehigh Valley.

Commercial builders aren't interested in affordable housing because they can't make money from it. Affordable housing costs almost as much to build as market-rate housing and is subject to the same economic volatility, such as spikes in the cost of lumber. And affordable housing developers often compete with commercial builders for property to build on, Jennings said.

The answer is more money, said Beers, who is also director of Valley Housing Development Corp., which develops federally subsidized housing. HUD's $48.6 billion budget allocation for 2020 is about $2.3 billion larger than this year's.

We could use thousands of units and the funding that's available is going to get us hundreds of units," Beers said.

Those unable to find affordable housing and trying to stay off the streets also face challenges finding beds in shelters or transitional housing, with fewer than 700 available in the Lehigh Valley.

'I Wanted to End It'

Alice Williamson was living in her SUV with her black cat, Jazz, when she hit what she said was her rock bottom last August.

Williamson, 82, grew up in the Phillipsburg area and married when she was 16. She and her husband, Clarence, worked together as tenant farmers in Warren County, New Jersey, raised seven children and retired to a rented mountainside cabin near Towanda in Bradford County.

After her husband's death in 2001, Williamson moved around the country, first to Indiana and then to upstate New York, where she lived for a time near her daughter.

This summer, Williamson applied at Easton Housing Authority for an apartment, loaded her belongings into a U-Haul truck with her Mitsubishi on a dolly behind and drove to Easton.

When she arrived, however, Williamson discovered she had not been granted an apartment in Easton and with the $23,000 a year she receives from Social Security and her husband's pension from a factory job, could not afford a place to live there.

Williamson put her things in a storage unit. She spent her days reading and listening to the radio in her car, where she also slept. Occasionally she would get a hot meal at a Chinese restaurant or a diner. She bathed and washed her hair in gas station restrooms.

"I just got to a point where I couldn't do it anymore," Williamson said.

One day in August, she parked near the Lehigh River in a part of Easton known as The Flats. She was crying and thinking about driving into the river, she said.

I wanted to end it, but I couldn't do it because of my cat. I would not kill my cat," she said.

A woman who Williamson doesn't know, but calls her guardian angel, parked behind her and tapped on the window. Williamson explained her situation. The woman then made a call to the regional human services hotline, 2-1-1.

Finally, a Place to Call Home

That connected Williamson with New Bethany Ministries in Bethlehem, where she and Jazz now have a room. New Bethany provides secure, dormitory-style rooms in a building with shared bathrooms and a communal kitchen. It has similar buildings in Allentown and Coplay.

To qualify, a person must have at least $600 a month in income, pay $350 in rent and pass a background check. Residents receive breakfast and lunch five days a week and although the program is meant as a bridge to permanent housing, there's no limit to how long a person can stay, New Bethany housing coordinator Lori Nagy said.

New Bethany had a place for Cross, too.

Two weeks after Cross told Biehl and Burns that he was going to the movies with a friend and didn't return, he reflected on his decision.

I made a huge mistake," Cross said of his decision to leave their home. "I went into a fit of depression. I felt like I was sort of taking advantage of two remarkably good people."

He applied for the single room occupancy program. On Nov. 18, when Cross was down to his last $80 -- enough for one more night at a cut-rate motel -- Nagy called to tell him his application was approved.

The agency's building in Coplay had a ground-floor room that would be available in a few weeks. Until then, Cross would become Williamson's neighbor in Bethlehem and she, his mentor in the program.

"She's taken me under her wing," he said.

Cross said he's thankful to Biehl and Burns and wants to stay in touch with them, but he's also happy to be paying his own rent again.

"I like to feel I'm not living on someone else's dime," he said.

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Learn more about the difficulties seniors face in securing housing:

Harvard JCHS Housing Americas Older Adults 2018 by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

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