MEDIA FEATURE: A way to help seniors afford their rents

MAY 26, 2016

No one who has worked their whole life should struggle to afford the most basic necessities in their elder years. Yet every day too many seniors in our city are forced to make terrible choices between paying rent, buying food, filling prescriptions and other necessities.

New York City’s affordable housing crisis is becoming more pronounced, with rents rising at an unprecedented pace. For low-income older adults, this is especially scary as incomes are fixed or decline with age. For example, Social Security beneficiaries did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment this year, even as rents continue to rise.

Today, one out of three single New York seniors pays more than half of his or her income on housing, and one unexpected expense could result in a missed rent payment and eviction. This problem is only expected to grow as New York City’s senior population increases by an estimated 40 percent between 2010 and 2040. The need to help ensure older adults have an affordable home has never been greater.

Fortunately, we have a program in New York City specifically designed to help seniors afford their rents. The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program, or SCRIE, freezes rents for low-income seniors living in rent stabilized apartments. The landlord receives a refundable tax credit making up the difference between what is paid by the household and the legal rent.

Right now, unfortunately, the program is not effectively addressing the full challenge of affordable senior housing – but with a few modifications it could provide a true safety net for seniors.

Our first recommendation is for the city to create a more robust, sustained public awareness campaign to ensure all those who qualify for SCRIE are enrolled. Currently only 43 percent of people who are eligible use the program, largely due to a lack of awareness and barriers to applying, such as language.

Our second recommendation is for rents under SCRIE to be capped at one third of the household’s income. Today, the average SCRIE enrollee has an annual income of just $16,504. Because of the program’s design, rents are frozen when seniors enter the program, but for many, this freeze occurs after rents have already escalated far beyond their means. As a result, a shocking one-third of seniors enrolled in SCRIE are paying more than 70 percent of their incomes on rent, leaving them with an average of only $183 left over per month to pay for all other needs, including food and medicine.

Increasing enrollment and capping rents will add to the program’s cost. However, the cost of doing nothing is even greater. When senior households pay too much on rent, this often leads to unhealthy outcomes, like skipping meals or doctor visits. In 2014, The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that “on average, severely rent-burdened households … spend more than 40 percent less on food than households living in housing they can afford.” Seniors that are housing insecure are often more vulnerable to abuse. And older adults who are unable to afford their housing often enter higher levels of care such as nursing homes purely because they have nowhere else to go, at enormous cost to the public.

Additionally, SCRIE can support the city’s efforts to preserve affordable housing by keeping seniors in their rent-regulated apartments. The recommendations we outline can help make it a powerful tool to curb the loss of stabilized units across all five boroughs because it prevents unit turnover and allows long-time residents to remain in their community after retirement. This is a win-win for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing plan and older New Yorkers.

We should all agree that our communities are better off when our elders have an affordable place to live. We already have a tool at our fingertips to help thousands of seniors who are living in rent-regulated housing. We just need the will to make these changes.

Judi Kende is vice president and New York market leader at Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national organization that creates, preserves and advocates for affordable housing linked to good schools, jobs, transit and health care. Bobbie Sackman is the director of public policy at LiveOn NY, a nonprofit organization recognized as a leader in making New York State a better place to age. LiveOn NY's Affordable Senior Housing Coalition works to increase the availability of affordable housing for older adults. Read more in Enterprise and LiveOn’s latest report, Reducing Rent Burden for Elderly New Yorkers.