Housing a struggle for low-income seniors

Stretched subsidies, long waiting lists create challenges

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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Clark County’s senior population has about doubled since 2000, but the amount of subsidized housing for low-income seniors hasn’t kept pace.

Those age 62 and older who qualify for one of Vancouver Housing Authority’s properties face long wait lists — if they’re able to get on a list at all. Among the housing authority’s nine complexes specifically for seniors, only four have open wait lists:

• Columbia House has 132 applicants on the wait list, and it takes about 22 months to get into the complex.

• Eighty-one applicants are vying to get into St. Helens Manor, which takes 21 months to get into.

• Medicaid and private pay facility Van Vista Plaza has 981 people on the wait list and it typically takes people about eight months to get housing.

• Vista Court Apartments has 318 people on its wait list for two-bedroom apartments. It typically takes 2.75 years to get housed there.

“When you have closed wait lists, you really don’t get a true understanding of what the real demand is,” said Roy Johnson, the housing authority’s executive director.

Other VHA properties could house seniors — they’re just not set aside specifically for seniors. There are also low-income senior complexes that aren’t owned by the housing authority.

Low-income seniors need a subsidy to be able to afford rent, but it’s difficult to provide that subsidy right now for everyone who needs it, Johnson said. He talked Tuesday evening during the Clark County Commission on Aging’s meeting, the ninth talk in a yearlong series about housing. In the final talk happening 4:30 p.m. Nov. 15, Aaron Murphy will address the future of housing and how it will change the way we live. The commission plans to bring what it’s learned to the Clark County council in January and hold a housing summit in February.

Like other low-income renters, seniors are impacted by rising rents in Vancouver. The going rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $1,053 and a two-bedroom costs $1,242, according to 2017 Fair Market Rents report recently released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s an increase of about 3 percent from the most up-to-date 2016 Fair Market Rents, which had to be increased three times because the numbers weren’t reflective of the actual rental market. The housing authority uses Fair Market Rents to determine payment standards on Housing Choice Vouchers, otherwise known as Section 8, that buy down the cost of rent.

“The subsidy streams, such as our Section 8 program, become more and more stretched as the rents are increased. As we’re paying more for each household, that means fewer households that we can help in the future. Any of our new enrollments now are because people terminate off,” Johnson said. “We don’t get new Section 8 vouchers unless it’s for a very specific population like veterans.”

Although there’s a greater demand, the federal programs that supported developing new senior housing “have completely disappeared,” he said. So, competition for federal dollars has gotten fiercer.

The housing authority relies more on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced a bill that would increase the amount of tax credits to build more affordable housing. Clark County’s estimated share would be an additional 120 units, on top of the 1,748 units that would be created with the current tax credit allotment, for a total of 1,868 units.

“It’s very expensive to do developments,” Johnson said. The new Lincoln Place in downtown Vancouver, for instance, cost more than $6 million or about $200,000 per unit. “That’s why these programs are very important.” (Lincoln Place is for chronically homeless people, not necessarily seniors.)

Senior housing is a lower priority for funding than supportive housing, such as housing for those with behavioral health issues or homeless youth.

Still, Johnson knows the city should be doing more when it comes to senior housing, assisted living, memory care facilities and collaboration among home health service providers. He doesn’t think the housing authority can begin looking at a new housing project until 2018.

The housing authority supports other developers creating low-income housing, such as Reach Community Development.

The Portland-based nonprofit is getting ready to open a 49-unit complex in central Vancouver called Isabella Court. Reach has begun processing applications from the wait list, said Lauren Schmidt, fundraising and public relations manager at Reach. There were about 200 people on the interest list to get an apartment when Reach began randomly sorting people into the wait list. Residents may begin to move in mid-November.