MEDIA: Seniors Wait Years for Affordable Housing

By: Jessica Gould
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Publication & Publisher: WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820

Indira Prasad is just trying to find some peace. She says that's why she volunteers as a yoga teacher at Selfhelp's Innovative Senior Center in Queens, which she calls a refuge from the "dark, dank basement" where she lives. Prasad pays $508 in rent for her apartment, making it one of the few places she can afford from the $776 in income she receives from Social Security each month. But now her landlady wants to sell the house, and Prasad has to move. She's on waiting lists for public housing and subsidized senior housing, but there haven't been any openings, and she doesn't know where she'll end up.

"The waiting game is taking a toll on me," she said. 

Bobbie Sackman with the senior advocacy group LiveOn NY says this is the reality for a lot of city residents: People who struggled to get by when they worked are struggling that much more now. Sackman says one in five New York City seniors are living in poverty, and more than 100,000 pay over 50 percent of their income in rent.

"Decisions have to be made from the viewpoint of somebody who’s 70 or 80," she said. "What is their relationship with time, the time they have or the time they probably don’t have." 

Sackman's group projects there are 200,000 seniors spending an average of seven years onwait lists for affordable housing. It also found that many parking lots next to senior housing are almost totally empty. Her group says simply building more units on those parking lots would accommodate thousands of seniors. 

Mayor de Blasio says a key piece of his affordable housing plan — called Zoning for Quality and Affordability — seeks to address this problem. In order to build more apartments, the plan would make parking optional at senior housing and at other new affordable housing projects near mass transit. For senior housing that isn't as close to mass transit, the parking requirements would be reduced.

It would also allow taller buildings, permitting one or two additional stories in areas scattered throughout the city, including parts of the East Village, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Williamsburg.

The mayor says this is crucial to achieving his goal of building and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing, including 10,000 specifically for seniors. 

Many senior advocates, including the AARP, have lined up behind the plan. But there are critics. 

Local leaders like City Council Member Donovan Richards are worried about what reducing parking would mean for their constituents.

"We have some of the longest travel times to Manhattan so many Queens residents actually use their cars," he said. 

Meanwhile, preservationists say taller buildings threaten the character of carefully planned communities, and they doubt whether the added heights will actually result in more affordable units.

"We’ve seen this play out in New York City before: You end up making neighborhoods less affordable not more and you end up destroying their character," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Tenant activists worry new affordable apartments won’t be affordable enough. 

"We are concerned about how the plan will actually get to the people who need it the most," said Maritza Silva-Farrell, coordinator for the Real Affordability for All Coalition

Community boards and borough presidents have overwhelmingly opposed the plan. And council members are calling for changes. 

"There’s a huge need for more senior housing in the city." Richards said. "And the biggest task is to ensure that we’re doing it in a responsible fashion."

As for Prasad, she supports the mayor's proposal. She hopes it will get her off the waiting list and into a nice, new, affordable apartment. "And I can finally have a sigh of relief and I can sleep and relax," she said. 

The council is scheduled to vote on Zoning for Quality and Affordability as well as the mayor's major proposal, called Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, this month.