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Need affordable senior housing? You may be waiting years as Philly, nation grapple with long wait lists.

As federal funding for affordable senior housing developments has been slashed, there is increased competition to secure the remaining money. That means it can take years to get a community off the ground.

In Philadelphia's Kingsessing neighborhood, Presby's Inspired Life, a local nonprofit, has recently opened the Witherspoon Senior Apartments, which provide affordable units for adults aged 62 and older. Many affordable housing communities face long wait lists.
In Philadelphia's Kingsessing neighborhood, Presby's Inspired Life, a local nonprofit, has recently opened the Witherspoon Senior Apartments, which provide affordable units for adults aged 62 and older. Many affordable housing communities face long wait lists.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

By the time the line began moving on a hot Tuesday morning in June, nearly a dozen seniors had been waiting for almost a day.

They gathered in South Philadelphia — by the end, scores of them, most older than 62 — to try to secure one of the new, affordable senior housing units sprouting near Fourth and Snyder Streets. Many had begun lining up the afternoon before with their lawn chairs and sun hats. Waiting hours — overnight even — seemed a small price to pay, they thought, for a chance at safe, clean housing that they could afford.

In reality, most of them had been waiting much longer than 24 hours. The new development, called Cantrell Place, had been in the works since 2011 when Montgomery County-based developer Presby’s Inspired Life envisioned the senior housing community. Before finally opening its doors in December, Presby had spent the time drawing up plans, assembling land, and applying for funding over and over again.

The 61 one-bedroom units, with space for seniors who make as little as $12,240 and as much as $36,708 annually, had been more than seven years in the making.

For seniors who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, that meant living in rowhouses with too many stairs or too much space to maintain. Some stayed in properties crumbling from disrepair. Others had seen their incomes decline and cost of living rise, leaving them in houses they could no longer afford.

Yet in today’s affordable housing landscape, seven years to finish a project could be considered the norm. Government funding for these types of projects has continued to shrink. Competition for what remains has intensified. Nonprofit and for-profit affordable housing developers must often apply repeatedly for the limited public money. If they don’t get it, experts say, it’s hard for affordable housing projects to proceed.

The issue has become particularly problematic for senior citizens. A majority of the massive baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, is in its 60s, with several million boomers now in their 70s. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, the population of people aged 65 and older is expected to jump to 73 million by 2030, an increase of 33 million in two decades.

But the problem is far greater than growing demand. It’s no longer uncommon for people to live into their 80s and beyond, meaning housing is needed for longer than it once was. At the same time, the number of older, low-income households is growing, the Harvard study said, with those earning less than $15,000 per year jumping 39 percent between 2000 and 2016.

The result, experts say: an affordable senior housing crisis — one that is expected to grow worse in the coming years.

“Subsidies haven’t really kept pace with the growth in that population,” said Robert Silverman, a professor at the University of Buffalo and an expert in affordable housing. “Without funding for affordable housing development, what developers have been left with as options — and what kinds of options they pursue — have really been market-rate housing that leans toward the high-rent market.”

A five- to 10-year wait for a home

Isabella Kelly has survived cancer twice, suffers from spinal stenosis, and has endured a broken ankle that landed her in the hospital.

In other words, at 66, she knows she’s a pretty tough lady.

Which is why, she thinks, she stayed in her collapsing West Philadelphia home for so long. For years, she had no heat — and eventually broke her oven using it to try to stay warm. Water from her leaking roof filled buckets and bags. And when she came home from the hospital after ankle surgery in 2017, she found her kitchen ceiling with a gaping hole in it.

“I saw stuff dropping down from the ceiling one day, and I looked up and there was a raccoon looking at me,” Kelly said. “I yelled and it just stood there. And then the second time … it was on top of the closet. I nailed a 2-by-4 up there and some heavy cardboard to the roof, but I couldn’t sleep. I was like, ‘What if I wake up and it is sitting on my chest?’ ”

So in the summer of 2017, Kelly applied to Presby for a low-income apartment. But like thousands of other seniors looking for affordable housing in the region, she was told there was a wait list — one that could take years to be whittled down.

At Presby’s affordable senior communities, as well as other senior communities in the region, applicants face wait lists that are often hundreds of people long. At Presby, for example, nearly 4,200 people are waiting to move into the 2,451 slots they offer at the 36 communities they developed or manage.

The wait, a spokesperson said, can typically last several years. Kelly ultimately secured a spot at a community in Southwest Philadelphia just a few days before Christmas — roughly a year and a half after she applied.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority said its wait list for affordable senior housing is 11,262 people long — meaning applicants can expect to wait between five and 10 years to get a spot inside one of its 2,100 senior-only public housing apartments. For physically disabled seniors, however, PHA typically can move them into accessible units within a year, a spokesperson said.

(PHA classifies seniors as people 55 and older, compared to Presby, which has a minimum age requirement of 62 for its residents.)

“The demand is really high,” said Vidhi Anderson, executive director of housing and land development at Presby. “I think it becomes a bit of a bottleneck with funding. It’s extremely limited and extremely competitive. … It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Slashed federal funding, fiercer competition

When developers of affordable senior housing want to build a new community today, their options for sizable chunks of funding largely boil down to one: low-Income Housing Tax Credits, administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

It wasn’t always this way.

For decades, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded new affordable senior housing projects through its Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program, known as Section 202. Started in 1959, the program produced nearly 400,000 new units for low-income elderly households over its lifetime, HUD estimates. Yet the program was slashed in 2012 by several million dollars, eliminating the ability for Section 202 to be used for new projects. Current funds support only existing senior housing, and allocations were cut further in 2016-17, Harvard says.

“The only real way to fund [projects] now is through the low-income tax credits,” Anderson said.

And competition can be fierce.

Each year, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency receives around $30 million in housing tax credits from the federal government, which developers can apply for in amounts as large as $1.25 million. If selected, developers then transfer those credits to investors and corporations in exchange for millions of dollars of equity. The investors, in return, can use the credits as a discount against future taxes.

Last year, across the state, developers of 98 affordable housing projects submitted an application for tax credits. Slightly more than a third — 39 total — were selected.

Ted Wasserman, president of Montgomery County-based Wasserman Properties, was one applicant who was denied last year. He hopes to build a 44-unit low-income senior housing community called Frankford House in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood, which he said will provide social and health-care services, in addition to housing.

Already, he said, he has sunk nearly $150,000 into planning his project. He recently applied again. But with competition just as aggressive — 86 applicants — there’s no guarantee that he will get the funds this year.

“All types of affordable housing are going after that same pot of money,” Wasserman said. “And there are stories of people who have applied three or four times."

Anderson from Presby knows what that’s like. For the organization’s Witherspoon senior housing project in Southwest Philadelphia, which also opened its doors in late 2018, Presby applied three years in a row before being awarded tax credits. And then, it still needed funding from the city, as well as private money, to cover the project’s full cost.

With a line of senior citizens camped out for that rent-subsidized project, too, Presby had the 60-unit community filled up in a matter of days.