Emergency housing assistance for older adults needed now

The numbers tell a staggering truth: 80 percent of all COVID-19 deaths are among people 65 and older. Nine months into the pandemic, that older adults are disproportionately harmed is undeniable.

Older adults living in federally subsidized housing are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. With average household incomes of less than $14,000 a year, and more likely than seniors without housing assistance to have chronic health conditions and be Black or Latinx, the nearly 1 million residents of senior communities nationwide have not received the funding they need, despite being at extremely high risk of falling ill — and dying — from COVID-19.

Catherine Evans, executive director, Lesley Senior Communities in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and providers of affordable senior housing like her have spent thousands and thousands of dollars for unbudgeted items, costs that are solely attributed to COVID-19 response. “Our 2020 budget’s been blown up and unfortunately relief funds from the CARES Act far from cover our additional expenses,” she says.

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Money to cover cleaning and disinfection, services for residents to help them stay safe, virus-caused staffing gaps and other increased operating expenses are some resident and provider needs. Another: access to reliable and affordable internet services both to ensure critical medical help via telehealth services as well as to stave off the negative effect of loneliness by staying in touch with loved ones. “If a resident doesn’t have WiFi, he or she loses important emotional supports. Mental health impacts physical health; there’s the threat of a downward spiral,” said Roger Myers, president and CEO of Presbyterian Village of Michigan, which operates 24 affordable housing communities serving 2,120 residents. “HUD and Congress have to treat WiFi in resident units just as they treat water or electricity: as a basic utility. It’s an essential service.”

The Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act of 2020, introduced in the House (H6873) earlier this year by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past Cawthorn to introduce resolution condemning political violence after warning of 'bloodshed' if elections are 'rigged' MORE (D-Calif.) and in the Senate (S4177) by Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict Failed drug vote points to bigger challenges for Democrats Overnight Defense & National Security — Blinken heads to the hot seat MORE (D-N.J.), would address many of the relief needs of HUD-assisted senior housing communities. As COVID-19 barrels through the nation, HUD-assisted senior housing communities need help and they need it now.

Results of a recent survey of nonprofit providers of federally assisted senior housing, all members of LeadingAge, reveals that more than half (59.7 percent) of respondents are aware of confirmed COVID-19 cases in their communities. The majority (69 percent) say they are ‘cost-burdened’ or ‘severely cost-burdened’ from having to pay for personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies and other COVID-19-related items.

In addition to allocating critical funding to cover costs of COVID-19 related supplies, this urgently needed legislation addresses one of COVID-19’s most pervasive threats: social isolation. Most (84 percent) survey respondents reported resident social isolation and access to services to be the top challenge in the next three months. By providing $300 million to support and expand HUD’s successful service coordinator program, the bill brings critical staffing to connect residents to the services and supports they need to thrive in the face of the pandemic.

Another key feature of the bill is funding for building-wide wireless internet, including for internet in residents’ apartments and for ongoing service fees. Residents can’t afford these fees; nor can they afford to live without the access WiFi brings them to the rest of the world. Without WiFi, residents are left out of the telehealth’s expansion, out of connecting to their families, out of reach of the world the rest of us experience every day. In the survey, housing providers said more than half of residents face barriers to internet access.

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The Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act is one part of the broad response to how COVID-19 has impacted older adults’ homes. In addition to 65+ adults in federally assisted housing, 22 percent of older adults rent their home in the private market. Continuation of an eviction moratorium with funds to protect building owners, ensuring that they can make their mortgage payments and maintain their communities, is also critical. Older adults live in many types of housing. Congress must act broadly to address the scope of relief needed.

“Government should be our partner in this life-preserving effort, if for no other reason than it reduces hospital and health care costs by stopping the spread. But, of course, the imperative to protect our nation’s elders is our motivation. We urge our government officials to support this work in all affordable senior housing,” said Amy Schectman, CEO, 2Life Communities, serving over 1,600 people on five campuses in Massachusetts.

Dozens of national organizations have joined LeadingAge in support of this legislation via this sign-on letter. It’s time for Congress to act for older adults. It’s time to pass the Emergency Housing Assistance for Older Adults Act.

Couch is Vice President of Housing Policy at LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services, including affordable housing for older adults living on low incomes.