STRATFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — Without changes, elderly housing as Connecticut knows it will disappear.
That is the warning from Stratford Housing Authority Director Kevin Nelson. Over time, he watched income to his housing authority dwindle, money that is required to meet the needs of residents, pay for repairs and salaries. It is an issue repeated in housing authorities across the state, due, in part, to the changing demographics of elderly housing. An increased number of non-elderly disabled tenants are moving into elderly housing. Over the last year, News8 researched elderly housing and found risks to seniors, a lack of resources for disabled tenants and housing authority directors acting as social workers in often volatile environments.
“You’re not going to have enough money to do the repairs to the units or you’re going to have base rents so big that tenants can’t afford it and you’ll have vacancies,” said Nelson. “Roughly speaking for every tenant that is nonelderly disabled we get $300 less in rent,” said Nelson.
The financial future of housing authorities is something Connecticut legislators have researched again and again. In 2004, lawmakers studied tensions between elderly and disabled tenants in federally or state subsidized housing.
“The last thing we want to see is these housing authorities going down a road toward financial instability which will cause them to go out of operation entirely,” said Connecticut House Representative Brendan Sharkey during the 2004 hearing.
The subsequent 2004 report explained the issue simply: “Non-elderly disabled residents tend to be poorer than their elderly counterparts. Poor tenants provide less rent revenue to support project costs, are unlikely to produce significant excess of base income, and are more likely to need tenant rental assistance. According to housing authorities, young disabled tenants are also likely to stay in residence longer than elderly tenants, due to their lower ages upon entry and lack of alternative affordable housing.”
With fewer units for elderly tenants, the need for elderly housing is rising. State data estimates the elderly population is going to balloon in coming years. A 2015 legislative study estimated the number of Connecticut residents age 65 and older will increase by 57 percent by 2040. In the same time period, estimated population growth for Connecticut residents age 20 to 64 is expected to increase by just two percent.
Nelson and other housing authority staff from across the state explained the realities of the shrinking budgets and the issues it creates to lawmakers. Nothing changes, said Nelson.
“I’m surprised that no one is doing anything about it,” said Nelson. “We’ve testified before the legislature for years and years and years on this. One time it was a whole day. We took over at 3:00 and we were testifying until 11 o’clock at night. Nothing came of it. So someone has to do something. These people need services. The elderly need a fair shake out of this deal. They came in expecting elderly housing, and believe me, nobody has anything against the young disabled, they need to live somewhere too.”
70 percent of Connecticut’s housing authorities report a budget shortfall. The Department of Housing echoed the concern in their 2014-2015 annual report . “It is anticipated that additional unmet need will arise in many of these facilities,” reads the report. The only way to balance budgets is to raise rent on elderly and disabled tenants.
“If they can’t afford to pay the rent, they can’t live [in elderly housing],” said Nelson. “You have to get someone who can afford to pay the rent otherwise sustainability is out the window.”
That is a future Connecticut Department of Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein said her agency is trying to avoid.
“We are working very hard with the property owners to ensure that folks are not displaced.”
Part of that solution came in 2012. Governor Malloy promised more than $30 million a year in housing grants to fix dilapidated housing for ten years. Before housing authorities can apply for the much needed money, they are required to conduct studies and identify specific problem areas to address. Former New London Housing Authority Executive Director Sue Shontell said she spent thousands on a grant proposal only to be denied each time.
“If you’re not selected, and I know other housing authorities that are in the same boat I am, they have applied 2 or 3 times, you’re out of money,” said Shontell. “You can’t keep doing it.”
Even with grant dollars, waiting list data shows a rising number of disabled people trying to get into elderly housing. Since 2004, Connecticut Housing Authorities saw an average seven percent increase in non-elderly names added to their waiting list. Some cities, like Hartford, saw a 46 percent increase in disabled applicants.
“You have an end of the story that is already written and it’s going to get there if they don’t do something,” said Nelson.
This story appears as part of the News 8 Investigators multi-part series, ‘Neglected Neighbors,’ a year long investigation into Connecticut’s elderly housing supply. To read and watch Part 1, click here. Part 2, click here and Part 3, click here.