Linda Couch

A new report on housing in the United States shows a disconnect between the needs of the population and the housing market that is supposed to serve them, according to one housing policy expert.

“The market has failed a large section of the population, including older adults with low incomes,” LeadingAge Vice President of Housing Policy Linda Couch said, commenting on the 2019 “State of the Nation’s Housing” report, released Tuesday by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. “What the report says is happening is that housing production is down when we need housing production to be up. What’s being built is luxury at a time when what we need to be built has to include a strong mix of affordable [housing],” she said.

More than one-fourth of renter households in the United States are older-adult households, according to the report. The number of units renting for less than $800 per month has fallen every year since 2011, a net decline of four million units, the authors said.

Worse, according to Joint Center for Housing Studies tabulations, affordability restrictions could expire on approximately 1.2 million rental units within the next 10 years. That number includes 611,000 units added through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, 352,000 units of Section 8 project-based housing, and 221,000 units under other programs such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program. 

“The report specifically calls for public efforts to close the gap between what people can afford and the cost of decent housing,” Couch said. “So I do think this is a call to action for the public to see affordable housing as an investment. If you’re not interested in it being a safety net, maybe you could see your way to support affordable housing because of the investment it is in people’s lives.”

That investment, she said, pays dividends in the form of improved health, well-being and dignity for older adults, who must spend less on food and medical care when forced to spend an outsized share of their incomes on housing cuts. Many affordable senior housing communities offer services and supports to help older adults age successfully, Couch said.

As a public investment in senior housing, she said, the Section 202 program is “an extremely efficient program that has produced more than 400,000 affordable homes across the United States but whose communities have a lengthy waiting list to get in amidst rising homelessness among older adults.”

One affordable senior housing operator of which she is aware has a nine-year waiting list, and it’s not uncommon for seniors to wait five to seven years for a unit, Couch said, adding that a person has to be 62 to get on a waiting list.

Having to spend a long time on a list “says a lot about how we treat older adults in this country, how we have decided as a nation what our housing policy will be,” she said. “It’s unconscionable,” she said about people living in tents on sidewalks around the nation’s capital.

LeadingAge has recommended new funding of $600 million for the Section 202 program for fiscal year 2020. A House bill under consideration would provide $140 million for new Section 202 construction, Couch said Tuesday. Although well short of $600 million, the amount would be the largest single-year funding for the program since 2010 and would be much more than seen in other recent years, she noted.

“In FY 17, Congress provided the first new money since 2011,” she said, “and between the three fiscal years — 2017, 2018 and 2019 — Congress provided a total of $166 million for the 202 program.”

But public investment is key to meeting the affordable housing needs of older adults, Couch said.

“If there was a dime to be made in affordable housing production, the private sector would have long ago figured out how to make that dime and address the nation’s affordable housing needs,” she said. “It is simply not a formula that works without significant public investment.”

Update: June 25, by a vote of 227-194, the House approved a five-bill FY 20 spending package that includes a total of $803 million for the Section 202 program, an increase of $125 million from the FY 19 funding bill. The Senate now will work on its own spending package.