Lawmakers must ensure affordable housing for low-income older Americans

Marta Hill Gray

May was the month of older Americans, but I bet you didn’t see many celebrations. Despite the rapidly aging population, little has been done in the political arena to ensure that less affluent older Americans can access affordable housing and receive the care they need with ease and dignity.

In 2019, there were 54 million Americans aged 65 and over, or 16% of the population; this share is expected to reach 22% by 2040. Nearly 5 million of these people were living below the poverty line, and another 2.6 million were dangerously close. If you sense the urgency in these numbers, you’re on the right track.

Across the country, affordable housing is a critical issue; older Americans are constantly seeing their resources dwindle and facing long waiting lists in nursing homes. As affordable housing options decrease, the number of homeless seniors increases. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Pennsylvania housing study released a sobering estimate that the number of homeless older Americans will triple over the next decade. We must act quickly and mobilize efforts to provide affordable housing options for seniors.

My work at Culpepper Garden, which houses 365 low-income seniors in 273 independent living apartments and 73 assisted living apartments, regularly reminds me that every senior has lived a full life. Some have had illustrious careers, some have done unglamorous work that has rocked our schools and cities, and others have cared for their own elders or raised the next generation. We need to see them as the sum of their lived experiences, not their current financial situation.

No one can predict the future. Some of us will outlive our savings, despite our best efforts and solid retirement plans.

Culpepper Garden is one of the few communities in the United States that caters to low-income seniors and provides subsidized access to housing and care. Providing this kind of support to our residents is not easy and depends on a combination of private and corporate philanthropy, grants and, in our case, federal grants. I am proud to note that our assisted living facility was the first in the country to receive grants from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and is a viable model that should be replicated in other parts of the country.

Amid the soaring cost of living, affordable housing for seniors is a pressing issue of social justice. If we don’t course correct and design a new housing policy, an additional 2.4 million low-income older Americans will not have access to affordable housing. Research shows that federal subsidies to offset housing expenses effectively rescue low-income families from poverty. At facilities like ours, federal support is a crucial safety net for some of our most vulnerable residents. I can well imagine the good such grants could do if implemented in senior living communities across the country.

There is a quote from Nelson Mandela that conveys a key message: “A society that does not value its elderly denies its roots and jeopardizes its future. There is no doubt that we collectively share the moral responsibility to ensure that everything older Americans have a place to live as they approach the final chapter of their lives. Our legislators on Capitol Hill, less than 10 miles from Culpepper Garden, have an important part in that responsibility. How we meet this moment will define us as a nation.

I urge Congress to introduce and pass legislation to ensure low-income older Americans have access to affordable housing and assisted living facilities. As American Older Month comes to a close, I invite you to reach out to your representative through the LeadingAge Advocacy Center and add your voice to support our cause.

Marta Hill Gray is the Executive Director of Culpepper Garden, a residential community for low-income seniors in Arlington, Virginia offering independent and supported living options.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight Senior Residence guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight Senior Residence.

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