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A Plan to Address NYC’s Affordable Senior Housing Crisis

By Stuart C. Kaplan, CEO, Selfhelp Community Services

Older New Yorkers are the fastest growing demographic in New York City and will comprise an estimated 1.84 million residents by 2030. However, our City’s capacity to accommodate them in appropriate housing is severely limited. About one in five older New Yorkers live in poverty (below $11,170/year) with many living on a fixed income. A report by the Citizens Budget Commission found that single seniors are the most severely rent burdened – 32% pay more than half of their income in rent.

Photo by Ulrich Joho/ Flickr
Photo by Ulrich Joho/ Flickr

As CEO of Selfhelp Community Services Inc., a nonprofit health and human services agency that also provides affordable housing for seniors, I am acutely aware of the growing need. The shortage has created waiting lists at Selfhelp alone of approximately 4,000 individuals, and an unfathomable waiting time of up to 11 years. Due to the lack of appropriate and affordable options, many seniors are forced to stay in apartments that are inadequate for their needs—living on upper floors of non-elevator buildings, in large apartments that are difficult to maintain, or in spaces too small to accommodate a wheelchair or walker.

Ms. P, one of our 77 year old residents recently shared her story about living in one of our affordable housing buildings in Flushing. After three years on the waitlist, she was able to move into the Scheuer House of Flushing with her 99 year old mother. She was unable to afford the rent at their previous residence based on her and her mother’s fixed incomes. After moving, she said, “I feel very safe living in senior housing. There is a security guard at night, there are emergency pull chords in the apartments in case we fall, and there are railings in the hallways…I am able to be the caregiver to my mother…I am able to participate in activities within the building and not have to worry if I will be able to get home in time to care for my mother. If anything should happen to her, her homecare aide will give me a call and I will be home in less than 5 minutes. I am very active on the tenant council; I enjoy the social, mental, and physical activities that are provided within senior housing. I am young and feel that living in safe housing with all the different services will help me stay healthy and in the community.”

For all of the security and peace of mind that affordable housing provides for Ms. P’s, there are thousands of seniors struggling to make ends meet in housing that doesn’t suit their needs.

We are grateful for the Mayor’s plan to build new senior affordable housing, and I urge the passage of the Zoning for Quality and Affordability Amendment. This would provide more flexibility to accommodate the diverse housing needs of a growing senior population. Additionally, it would allow developers of senior housing near transit to assess whether the residents of the building are likely to have cars that would justify investing in costly parking. Currently, these lots often sit unused, and at a construction price tag of $20,000-$50,000 per parking spot, we know these resources could be better utilized to build more apartments. This amendment would allow new affordable housing developments to provide better retail and community facility spaces, adding jobs to our communities and vibrancy to the street life without sacrificing space for affordable housing or detracting from the character of a neighborhood.

As a longstanding nonprofit organization in New York City, Selfhelp is sensitive to the negative impacts of shortsighted development and committed to maintaining the long-term affordability of senior housing. We firmly believe that properly planned affordable senior housing will add to and strengthen the character of communities throughout the city. Additionally, non-profit developers who have experience and expertise in providing health and social services should be part of the affordable housing solution. For low-income tenants, the development of bricks and mortar should be connected with knowledgeable service providers that can ensure community engagement and integration.

In May of 2015, Selfhelp joined with LiveOn NY and 25 leading non-profit senior housing providers who collectively operate 20,000 units of citywide senior housing. We conducted a study and developed recommendations on how to build more housing. Our proposal would primarily utilize unused parking lots at existing buildings as well as other vacant parcels. The survey analyzed 277 existing affordable senior buildings and 191 accessory parking lots across the city with the ultimate aim of selecting feasible sites for new senior housing development. The identified sites have the potential to create an additional 2,000 units of affordable senior housing. Without the passage of ZQA, those lots will sit underutilized.

As this process moves forward, I urge our elected and appointed officials and community leaders to keep the needs of seniors in mind and the benefits of having accessible, culturally-competent services and high-quality affordable housing for the fastest growing segment of New York City’s population.

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