Neglected Neighbors Part 1: How elderly housing policies fail Connecticut’s most vulnerable

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This story appears as part of the News 8 Investigators multi-part series, ‘Neglected Neighbors,’ on the state of Connecticut’s elderly housing supply. This story is part one of a year-long investigation on this topic.

(WTNH) — Helen Matulavage lives in a nursing home at the age of 96. She hasn’t been there long. She wouldn’t have moved there at all, but last year, an assault changed the course of her final years of life.

“I received a phone call about midnight of that night,” recalls Matulavage’s daughter, Gail Sokolnicki. “From a doctor in the emergency room at Yale telling me about my mother being pushed.”

pic3 Neglected Neighbors Part 1: How elderly housing policies fail Connecticuts most vulnerable
Matulavage moved into Seymour Housing Authority’s Callahan House in the 1970s.

On June 12, 2015, Matulavage was the victim of an assault at her home in Seymour Housing Authority’s Callahan House, a federally-run public housing complex for the elderly. She was playing bingo and socializing with fellow residents when another resident, 59-year-old Elaine Elwood, attacked her.

“I went for a loop,” Matulavage remembers of the attack. “I was going down, down, down and then I hit my head. And my back. And I heard everything crackle.”

Matulavage’s humerus, the bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow, was broken and protruded through the skin. Her femur, the thigh bone, was also broken. Both required surgery. As a relatively active elderly woman, she says the injuries have been devastating. “That’s all my life until I die. She took everything away from me. My activity. No more.”

pic2 Neglected Neighbors Part 1: How elderly housing policies fail Connecticuts most vulnerable
Helen Matulavage (left) and her daughter Gail Sokolnicki look at family pictures at the nursing home where Helen now resides after her attack.

But Matulavage is not alone. Her story is one example of problems in elderly housing due to a policy put in place during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. In the Housing Act of 1937, which established public housing, “elderly families” was defined to include “persons with disabilities.” Today, that definition still stands. A person qualifies to live in elderly housing if they are over the age of 62 or have a disability certified through the Social Security Administration.

For many years, Conn.’s elderly housing remained mostly filled with elderly residents. But in the mid-1980’s that started to change in some housing authorities. According to a 1992 U.S. GAO study on the issue, factors like deinstitutionalization, or the emptying of mental hospitals, increased the number of disabled people looking for affordable housing. Elderly housing was one of the few places that these former patients could go.

“As the number of younger persons with disabilities living in state and federal elderly/disabled housing projects has grown, the problems associated with mixing tenant populations with different styles of living also have occurred with more frequency,” reads another study, this time done by the Conn. Legislative Program Review in 2004.

Several studies done on the topic show that elderly housing was found to have increased problems due to the influx of the young disabled population. Conflicts between tenants rise due to lifestyle differences between young and older populations. The young disabled population was found to be more likely to be involved in a negative incident, such as drug use, physical altercations, or inappropriate social behaviors like public intoxication or panhandling. In addition, the researchers said that some of the disabled were likely inappropriately placed in independent living and should have more social service support. There are also financial implications for housing authorities with higher numbers of young disabled; typically, the disabled population pays less in rent than their elderly counterparts, making it tougher for housing authorities to pay their bills.

pic4 Neglected Neighbors Part 1: How elderly housing policies fail Connecticuts most vulnerable
Sokolnicki sent this fax cover sheet to Conn.’s Attorney General’s office after her mother’s attack.

Matulavage’s home at the Callahan House saw this demographic shift in the late 2000’s. In 2012, the Callahan House Tenant Association wrote a letter to several legislators, warning them of increasing conflict because of the growing mix of elderly and young disabled residents. Three years later, in 2015, the residents’ fears were realized when Matulavage was attacked by another resident with psychiatric disabilities. After the attack, Sokolnicki attempted to get the attention of government officials through phone calls and letters; she says she’s never received a response.

There have been some changes over the years by the federal government. In response to the 1992 study, Congress implemented an elderly-only designation program that allows housing authorities to set aside a federally-funded building for only those 62 and older. Many housing authorities say it can be difficult to qualify. Currently, nine out of 34 housing authorities in Conn. have a building with this designation.

On the state level, recommendations made in the 2004 study were largely not implemented.

The News 8 Investigators wanted to find out if the demographic predictions made in the studies came true. The young disabled populations across housing authorities was predicted to grow, especially in larger housing authorities.

Connecticut’s state and federal elderly housing supply as of 2016

According to public records requests and surveys, the News 8 Investigators have found out predictions were accurate: the young disabled population has increased statewide across many housing authorities. Some housing authorities still only have one or two disabled residents, and some housing authority managers have told us that they don’t find the mix of tenants to be an issue. However, there are still many housing authorities where it does remain an issue – and has gotten worse. There are buildings in the state with nearly all elderly residents.

Follow this link to a map the News 8 Investigators put together to show the current tenant breakdown in Conn.’s housing authorities. The data is as recent as possible and is collected from individual housing authorities, the Conn.’s Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), and from Conn’s 2014 Capital Plan to revitalize state housing.

Waitlist data shows that this trend will likely continue. Across all state and federal properties, we found that the waiting lists are composed of over 40 percent young disabled statewide. There are more disabled than elderly applying at properties in places like Stratford, Vernon, Ansonia, and New Britain, among others.

We also discovered that the state’s data on this is sometimes inaccurate. Waiting list data provided to us from CHFA mislabeled some applicants to elderly housing, putting disabled applicants under the elderly category, skewing the high demand being put on the elderly housing supply. CHFA told us this may have been due to the housing authorities not providing them this data. However, in many cases, News 8 was able to receive the correct breakdown from the housing authorities themselves.

This issue is heightened by an overall lack of affordable housing in the state and limited options for both populations.

“I think we need to find somebody that’s going to help these seniors have a better quality of life in their housing authorities,” pleads Matulavage’s daughter, Sokolnicki.

Although it’s too late for her mother, she hopes sharing the story will help others.

“I just want this story out there so everybody can be helped – not just the seniors but these people who actually need monitoring, who need help, they need assistance.”

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