Senior aging: A realistic path to housing survival

by Joseph Caparco

MONDAY, JANUARY 12, 2015— I have lived in this city for 42 years. I worked locally in special arts education programs and volunteered in civic organizations and love being in a dynamic, diversified place. Each day, walking through Central Square I strongly felt, and still feel a part of a culturally diverse community that is home. Many of the residents are transient students and others are permanent resident owners. Many are seniors living alone.

I thought, on reaching 65 my life would get easier and that my place in Cambridge would be secure.

This article will concentrate on my experiences in dealing with unexpected eviction and the search for the best affordable housing outcome. Also, it encourages other single seniors who want to remain in affordable apartments to stay informed on housing changes.

If you are one of the lucky seniors living in your own family house and are financially sound with limited health issues, you may be able to stay in your home until the very end of your life. However, that is not the reality for most seniors in the middle to lower middle class who rent and are living on just social security and with little savings, struggling to survive.

The city of Cambridge is not a large community and competition for affordable housing can be overwhelming. The number of seniors (men & women) living alone is difficult to estimate. According to the 2010 US census, 4,242 out of 9,988 seniors 65 and older in Cambridge were living alone. [1] The numbers keep growing.

Seniors live in many types of public & private housing— co-op buildings, condos, assisted living and even in nursing homes. Those of us who rent homes may be financially secure, stable and may survive for a while, until unforeseen events occur in health, family assistance or depletion of retirement funds. When this happens seniors may find themselves living from pay check to pay check and wondering if they will become homeless.

Painful decisions

These troublesome circumstances can bring on all forms of depression that makes it harder to readjust in a timely fashion. Painful decisions need to be made. Confusing thoughts occur like where do I go or where can I afford to live? Must I leave the city? Is there city information and assistance to help me with my dilemma? Most seniors hear about it (as I did) and turn to the biggest housing agency that deals with housing emergencies.

Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) is the largest local housing agency that manages federal and state public housing and assists families and over 2000 seniors who include veterans, disabled and the homeless. CHA serves 2,515 households in the public housing program and 2,727 households in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8). There are 1,835 elder CHA households. [2]  CHA defines anyone who is at least 58 years of age as “elderly.”

There is no shame in turning to CHA to assist you in finding a one bedroom or a studio while you are in crisis. If accepted, you will meet with a CHA representative and she or he will look at your income to establish whether you can be placed on their waiting lists.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: Unfortunately, CHA's Section 8 waitlist has been closed for some time. The CHA family and elder/disabled public housing waitlists were also closed as of January 1, 2015. CHA will continue to make placements for special programs including its Single-Room Occupancy Program, St. Paul's, and 116 Norfolk Street. CHA will continue to screen for emergency cases. Click here to read details and updates about the CHA waitlists. 

The waiting list

Public housing can offer you a safe and secure environment. You do not have to be a Cambridge resident to apply but they do take Cambridge residents first. Be sure to mention if you are a veteran, work in Cambridge or have a shelter address in Cambridge. These situations also give priority to your application. The waiting lists are long and people are seen in order of their registration date.

Also if you have an emergency because of domestic violence, no-fault eviction, natural disaster or a devastating fire, you can apply for emergency status. If the emergency committee approves your application, you will be offered either a voucher or a public housing apartment.

[For more information about eligibility and the application process: http://cambridge-housing.org/iam/applicant/application.asp    ]

Remember, when you go to register at CHA for assistance you can only apply for a Section 8 voucher if the list is open. The waiting list can be around 3,000. If you are fortunate to be given a mobile Section 8 voucher by CHA (which is a plus) this allows you to choose from many kinds housing in this city and other cities.

However, many Section 8s are now being converted by CHA into “project based” subsidies in order to secure, repair and remodel public and privately managed housing with the money brought in when the vouchers are “attached” to the buildings. There has not been any new public housing built for seniors since the 1990s. In 2013, 76 percent of “tenant based” (mobile) voucher holders still remained in Cambridge but a growing number of newer participants are moving elsewhere because of high rent. [3]

I was fortunate to receive priority and got a mobile Section 8 from CHA. In my case, after using my mobile Section 8 Voucher for only 5 years, I had to give it up to move into an elderly apartment building that required me to convert my mobile voucher to project based voucher.

In 2012, my landlord—who had accepted my Section 8—told me that he was planning to sell his small building. I was devastated! I had lived there for 16 years in a four-room apartment. I received my final eviction notice 2013, while frantically continuing my search for a one-bedroom apartment. I looked at notices on Craigslist and at CHA and I talked to realty agents. I networked with every person I knew, including my neighbors, asking them for apartment leads in the area. I filled out applications in several larger apartment buildings who were accepting Section 8.

I learned from my search that most landlords were not interested in accepting a Section 8 or dealing with CHA. There were no potential offers for any apartments and my anxiety grew. For comfort and support, I joined the Cambridge Multi-Service Center; Somerville Stay Put group and the Cambridge Senior Action Council. At the last minute, I did gratefully accept the offer from a privately managed, elderly rental building for a one bedroom apartment with 2 rooms and a balcony in the Riverside neighborhood.

I was determined not to be displaced from my home city. I hope others like me wanting to stay in Cambridge will take my advice and keep up their determination to remain.

Some suggestions

I have come up with the following list of suggestions that hopefully will promote a positive outcome for an apartment search from the age of 55 and older.

(1) Before an age related crisis occurs: remember to begin collecting retirement information on what is available in senior housing and other supportive services. This will make you aware of aging concerns and what you might be facing in the future. PLAN, PLAN, get INFORMATION!

Check out these Cambridge organizations:

Cambridge Council on Aging

Cambridge Multi-Service Center

Cambridge Community Development Department

Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee (CEOC)

Cambridge Senior Center

• Alliance of Cambridge Tenants (ACT)

Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services

(2) Join the Cambridge Chapter of Mass Senior Action where SENIORS ARE EMPOWERED and INFORMED.

(3) IF overwhelmed and experiencing medical stress symptoms, have a relative, friend or guardian involved in getting and explain information to you.

(4) When being assisted by CHA’s housing assigned representative—KEEP ALL APPOINTMENTS AND BE ON TIME. MAKE COPIES OR ASK FOR COPIES OF ALL FORMS FILLED OUT.

(5) If you are in financial crisis and bills are overwhelming, you must take advantage of all senior reductions: like a SENIOR TRANSIT PASS, FUEL ASSISTANCE, FOOD STAMPS AND FOOD BANKS, and even USING COUPONS. Always remember to say you are a senior when dealing with business organizations of any kind to see if you can get a reduction on item costs.

(6) Start your day early and get out of your home with A COURSE OF ACTION in mind to find an apartment. After every exhausting search, always treat yourself to coffee or tea and even lunch.

The future of Cambridge housing

What is the future of Cambridge housing? A report just out (Sept. 3, 2014) by Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies & AARP Foundation: says that the whole country needs answers to affordable housing and especially for aging Americans. With baby boomers in their 50s approaching retirement the number of seniors in the USA will increase to 133 million by 2030. [4]

For Cambridge’s 44,000 households there are presently about 7,500 housing units that are designated as affordable. (These figures do not include students living in dormitories.) [5]

The message is clear for many of us (not born rich) we must stay actively involved in senior housing affairs that affect all services needed in our lives. Remember, many housing choices are open to you only if you are healthy and financially sound. But if you are not, the notion that Cambridge will provide you with affordable housing is questionable and requires insisting that you are as important as any other resident.

Although you may not want be involved in competition with others you have no choice but to gain as much up to date senior related information on how to remain in your home or apartment. The fact that you are surviving and living—with or without CHA assistance—is remarkable and deserves celebration.

Do not ever feel you are not resourceful and cannot use your voice and vote to push the city council toward recognizing the greater need for more affordable senior housing. We need to call for the city council to return to some form of rent control to stop unreasonable rent increases and get rental construction builders and developers to include more affordable apartments for low income senior residents.

The call for equal justice for all Cambridge residents needing affordable housing must continue to be fair for everyone including students, disabled, veterans, homeless and aging seniors. As seniors, we must take stronger actions to insist on our right to be included in all decisions made about the future of Cambridge housing.

I hope this article is encouraging and gives you information on some of the housing resources in Cambridge. It may shine a light on a realistic path of survival for those of us seniors who want to remain in the city we love.

REMEMBER: Aging comes so quickly to all of us within a blink of an eye.

Joseph Caparco

Cambridge Resident

Member of ACT and Mass. Senior Action- Cambridge Chapter

Revised 12/12/14

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thank you to all the people who read my article and made comments on its contents and made suggestions for making it better.

Endnotes:

[1] US Census Bureau-Fact Finder: 2010 Demographic Profile data list. For more facts on senior information check out: Cambridge Silver Ribbon Committee Report-October 5, 2011.

[2] CHA MTW FY 2015 Annual Plan)

[3] Cambridge Housing Authority – Moving to work, Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Plan, 2013 to 2014, pages 20 and 21. Read other detailed CHA information in this document.

[4] Press Release, “U.S. Unprepared to Meet the Housing Needs of its Aging Population”, Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies & AARP Foundation Release New Report: Housing America's Older Adults-Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, September 2, 2014.

[5] Cambridge Community Development Department— Affordable Housing Sheet, received at July 9, 2014 Housing Committee meeting of the Cambridge City Council.