Preventing falls, maintaining health and finding new ways to ensure the availability of affordable housing for older adults are three areas of focus for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said Monday during a luncheon keynote speech at LeadingAge Florida’s annual meeting in ChampionsGate, FL.

“America must remain a world leader in our philosophies, policies and programs for senior living,” Carson said, according to prepared remarks posted on the HUD website. “This is a top priority for my department, to give seniors more opportunities, more alternatives, more choices and, if desired, to help more people age in place,” he added.

More than 350 LeadingAge members and partners attended the address, including more than 100 affordable seniors housing operators, according to LeadingAge Florida.

Carson said that, as a trained physician, he understands the important roles that health and safety play in helping seniors remain as independent as possible. Affordable housing, assisted living communities and other buildings where seniors live “must be designed, constructed, and maintained to prevent falls,” he said, citing a HUD report released last month.

Another test of housing with services

As McKnight’s Senior Living reported earlier this year, Hebrew SeniorLife also is hoping that its test of a model of housing with supportive services will show success in improving quality of life and reducing medical costs for older adults living in affordable housing. The model, according to the operator, potentially could save the healthcare system billions of dollars every year if successful and rolled out nationally. The $900,000 project is being funded through the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission and other sources.

The secretary also noted HUD’s commitment, finalized earlier this year, to spend $15 million to test a housing and services model designed to help low-income seniors age in place and delay or avoid the need for skilled nursing care. The project’s launch had been announced Jan. 13 during the final days of the administration of President Barack Obama, and HUD originally had begun seeking communities to participate in January 2016.

On-site wellness coordinators and other personnel, Carson said, “will lower healthcare costs, enable seniors to remain healthy and retain a high quality of life.”

Previous research by LeadingAge and the Lewin Group found that the availability of an on-site service coordinator, such as a social worker, at federally subsidized seniors housing reduced hospital admissions among residents by 18%.

HUD also will conduct joint research on aging in place and financing housing, including studying housing with supportive services, through an agreement with Japan announced in June, Carson said.

“HUD’s partnership with Japan will leverage this type of information, sharing it with an international audience and allowing the two countries to learn together,” he said.

On the affordable housing front, Carson said that HUD is considering selling many existing affordable housing properties to developers and bankers.

“Developers covet our properties because rising demand could turn those properties into money-making condos or apartment buildings,” he said.

But, Carson added, HUD is requiring developers to be the primary source of funding for new affordable housing units.

“That’s right! The developer must pay for affordable housing units, not the taxpayer,” he said. “And the units must meet all of our standards, all of our specifications. Rights must be fully protected under the law.”

Carson cited affordable housing in the Anacostia neighborhood near HUD’s Washington office as an example of this type of public-private partnership.

“Developers wanted those properties, so we started looking for common interests,” he said. “We made developers include assisted housing and affordable housing renters as part of any developmental deal.”

Low-income residents of the new housing share common areas, pool rooms and other spaces with “high-end buyers,” Carson said. “All through the creative use of financing and leveraging, liquidity and ideas from the private sector were put to public use. And, it relieved the taxpayers of many costs, providing a budget-neutral solution. It was a win-win-win for the developer, resident and taxpayer.

“Each building site requires an individual assessment of the needs of residents. Each is leveraged in different ways,” he continued. “There is no cookie-cutter approach, but the bottom line is the same: Developers are relieving taxpayers of the cost of affordable housing, and residents benefit.”