The numbers are discouraging for anyone who does not own a home. Every month, California's housing prices seem to set new records. The state has the third lowest rate of home ownership in the country. Housing prices put pressure on rents, which rise even as stock-derived income, which cushioned the costs for many, disappears. Competition for affordable housing is intense; waiting lists are long.
Among the hardest hit in this market, low-income seniors are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable, safe, independent-living situations. It is a problem that Jewish organizations such as Jewish Family Services (JFS) and the Menorah Housing Foundation struggle with every day and local government is gearing up to help.
"Housing cost is the number-one stressor," for low-income seniors, says Stacey Garfinkel, program manager for JFS' state-sponsored Linkages program, which helps seniors and the disabled to live independently in their own homes.
"The prescription drug piece is stressful, no doubt, but our clients are on MediCal. It's incomplete, but it is there. As a regular expense for many, housing is more than half of their income."
Marvin Schachter, spokesman on housing issues for the Executive Committee of the California Commission on Aging, says that one-third of all renters, two-thirds of all seniors and three out of four low-income households in California pay half or more of their income for rent. Schachter, who is also vice chairman of Menorah, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, also worries that nearly 150,000 units of publicly funded low-rent housing are in danger of conversion to market rates, as developers take advantage of opportunities to buy out the mortgages.
"Housing authorities in the state say we need to build 220,000 units per year just to keep up with the population," Schachter says. "We have built that much four times in the past 20 years, sometimes as little as half that much."
Home ownership in California ranks 48th in the nation. Part of the problem, which has been steadily increasing over the past decade, is the decline in federal support for housing by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"The city and the state are facing a crisis; like so many problems, it hits the poor hardest, and poor seniors are hit very hard," says Ted Senet, Menorah Housing Foundation board chairman.
But hope is in sight, with state and municipal leaders taking note of the problem and developing local measures to increase the availability and affordability of housing.
"At this point, two significant factors will help alleviate the crisis," Senet says. He points to Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn's proposed $100 million municipal housing trust fund and Proposition 46, a $2.1 billion state bond measure scheduled for the November ballot.
Under Proposition 46, the bulk of the money, over $900 million would be used to build multiunit buildings for affordable housing. Other funds from the measure would support farmworkers, the homeless and offer subsidies to families to help them make down payments. Menorah and other organizations are working to ensure that senior housing is a significant part of the effort to create affordable housing.
Although agencies of The Jewish Federation do not, as a rule, take official positions on ballot initiatives, Schachter says Menorah and JFS plan to run an educational campaign to support the proposition, which he estimates would create 130,000 units of affordable housing and create 276,000 jobs.
Senet is working hard at Menorah to continue creation of affordable housing for seniors, but he knows the work requires government help.
Menorah creates a couple of hundred units in a city that needs tens of thousands, he says. He hopes the city's housing trust fund and the statewide proposition together will take some of the pressure off of low-income seniors.
"If both of those components are fulfilled, we'll make a dent," Senet says. "We won't solve the problem, but it's a dent."
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