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Housing deemed silent crisis for nation's senior citizens

By Diane C. Lade
Staff writer - South Florida Sun Sentinel
Posted January 15 2002

MIAMI While the voting public and policy-makers fret over how senior citizens will pay for their prescription drugs or get health care, a congressional commission is exploring what they say is the forgotten question: Where are they going to live?

"Affordable housing is the silent crisis. What we keep hearing over and over is there is a tremendous need, said Steven Protulis, the executive director of the Lauderhill-based Elderly Housing Development and Operations Corp.

He sits on the Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Needs for Seniors in the 21st Century, appointed by Congress last year to study how to house the 53 million Americans who will be over age 65 by 2020 -- more than double the numbers today. The commission, which has been touring the country gathering testimony, made its only Southeastern stop Monday at the Robert Sharp Towers, a senior complex near the Broward-Dade county line.

Tenants joined administrators and researchers in the packed activities room, telling commissioners they were turning over most of their Social Security checks to rent until they got into a federally subsidized building such as Robert Sharp Towers -- and there just aren't enough of them.

When the not-for-profit Corporacion Desarrollo Comunitaro (or Community Development Corp.) announced it was opening a new building in Little Havana this year, more than 6,900 people stood outside for hours to apply for the 100 apartments.

Seniors living in the corporation's 14 other buildings, built with federal Housing and Urban Development dollars, sometimes hide that they are sick or have fallen because they are afraid they'll be asked to leave, said corporation Executive Director Jose Fabregas. Turnover has fallen as people live longer, driving up demand even more.

At Robert Sharp Towers, seniors who applied in 1999 just now are moving in, as there are only 10 to 12 vacancies a year. About 400 still are on the waiting list.

Those who apply must be at least 62 years old and have incomes that are 50 percent or less than the local median average. Tenants then pay 30 percent of their income in rent, with the rest picked up by the federal government.

In Terri Brodes's case, her housing costs went from $550 a month in North Miami Beach to $198 a month for her tidy one-bedroom at Robert Sharp Towers. "It means I can buy my grandchildren gifts or eat out now and then," said Brodes, 73, who was drawing $612 a month in Social Security when she moved in four years ago.

The Seniors Commission will issue its report this June and cover housing and health service issues for all seniors, not just those on limited incomes. Among the other issues it may explore: the need for federal regulatory standards for assisted-living centers and nursing homes, how health services can better mesh with housing, and ways to help seniors upgrade and stay in their own homes as they get older.

Commission Co-chair Ellen Feingold said it was a "myth that elders are rich and able to take care of themselves," and committee research shows one-half of Americans over age 62 have incomes that put them in the bottom quarter of American household earnings.

"It boggles the mind," said Feingold, president of a Boston senior housing project where 800 people are on the waiting list. "If you say how big the need is, it might scare people off instead of encouraging them to say `let's get busy.'"

The page was last modified on January 20, 2002