Affordable housing is in short supply in New Jersey. And affordable housing that’s accessible for seniors is even harder to find.
“The increase in the aging population coupled with the lack of affordable and accessible housing in New Jersey has left many older adults wondering how they will be able to age in their own communities,” says Melissa Chalker, executive director of the Trenton-based New Jersey Foundation for Aging.
Chalker’s organization is holding a free forum on senior housing on Thursday, January 16, at 8:30 a.m. at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at 50 College Road East in Princeton. Panelists include Christine Newman of the AARP, Courtney Christensen of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Jenny Dunkle of the Stockton University School of Social Work, Arnold Cohen of the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ, Katie York of Lifelong Montclair, Maria DiMaggio of the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and Lisa Blum of Homesharing. For more information, visit www.njfoundationforaging.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Affordability is just one of the housing issues that seniors are dealing with, Chalker says. “Some are facing affordability issues. Some older adults are in situations where they may have a little more resources, but maybe where they live, they are having trouble downsizing from a larger home to a smaller home. They may have accessibility issues in terms of stairs and that sort of stuff. Others have need of some assistance at home and don’t need the full level of care provided by a skilled nursing facility.”
Government agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels all have programs aimed at addressing these various needs, Chalker says. But a major hurdle for seniors to access them is information. “There are great housing programs that the state offers, but they all sit in different departments or divisions in state government,” she says. “People are looking for information, and there’s not one place they can go get it. There is not one person overseeing or coordinating those programs.”
The NJFA published a report in 2018 advocating several policies to help seniors. One of the recommendations was to create a cabinet-level position in state government to organize and coordinate all the senior programs.
In addition to all the state agencies, there is a maze of municipal governments to navigate. For example, Chalker says, suppose you’re an older adult looking for housing and you live in a certain town and you qualify for low income or moderate-income housing. You would have to go to each individual apartment building and apply to their list to be accepted. Better organized towns such as Princeton have their own information clearinghouses, but what if you are open to moving to a neighboring town? “There is no communication between the towns in terms of housing stock available and how to apply. That is an issue that is difficult for people,” she says.
The New Jersey Foundation for Aging was founded in 1998 by four county offices on aging that saw the need for a statewide organization not tied to government that could be a nonprofit advocate for older adults. “We saw the writing on the wall,” Chalker says. “We saw greater longevity and knew there would be an increase in the older adult population in the coming years.” In addition to doing advocacy work and running a blog and website, the NJFA produces a half-hour long TV program called “Aging Insights” that runs on YouTube and on 70 municipal TV stations across the state.
One of the organization’s most significant achievements was the creation of a new data point for policymakers to use. Most people are familiar with the cost of living index, which surveys the price of various goods in order to estimate how expensive it is to live in a given place. The NJFA created a measure called the Elder Index that includes costs that seniors are likely to have including Medicare, specialized senior transportation, and other expenses. Beginning in 2015 the Department of Human Services was required by law to produce an elder cost index and use it for planning and information purposes.
Chalker grew up in Hamilton, where her father was a Mercer County Sheriff and her mother worked in daycare. She has degrees in social work from Alvernia and Rutgers universities and worked in case management before joining the NJFA as a program manager in 2008. She was made executive director in 2018.
Chalker says that policies designed to benefit seniors usually end up helping the general population as well. “The issues facing older adults are the same issues facing everyone in your community,” she says. For example, she says, everyone needs affordable, safe housing. “It’s a high-cost state, and we have a lot of factors that contribute to that.”
The organization’s 2018 report makes 10 policy recommendations:
Increase funding available for affordable housing for seniors: The report specifically calls upon the state to restore a $600 million annual contribution to an affordable housing trust fund, which was siphoned off to other purposes by the Christie administration. This would help the significant percentage of seniors that spend more than 38 percent of their income on housing, well above the recommended amount of 30 percent. According to the report, since seniors are paying too much for housing, many seniors are left short of funds for food and medical care.
Increase the number of rental subsidies available for seniors: The report notes that New Jersey is the most unaffordable state in the nation for a senior to rent an apartment, but that the current State Rental Assistance program only serves 4,000 people.
Establish a NJ Statewide Housing Director to coordinate housing programs: “Currently affordable housing programs are part of several different agencies in state government creating “silos” in which each agency handles its own housing programs. A dedicated position and office at the cabinet level could normalize eligibility criteria, standardize application forms, centralize housing lists, and coordinate entry into programs to make it easier for seniors to access affordable and appropriate places to live,” the report says.
Facilitate a statewide Affordable Housing Needs Assessment: A comprehensive assessment of statewide data would help with planning.
Establish a one-stop system for those seeking affordable housing: A one-stop office would help seniors apply for housing efficiently rather than going from housing development to housing development and joining multiple waiting lists while applying to multiple agencies for subsidies.
Develop and implement innovative Housing First supportive housing pilots: The pilot would allow low-income seniors to remain in their current apartments as long as possible by providing funding for unit modifications and supportive services. It would apply to people who are homeless, institutionalized, or housing insecure.
Promote policies that allow seniors to age in place: This would include a tax credit for retrofitting existing homes and requiring new units to use universal design standards in order to create more housing available to seniors.
Advocate for a cap on each homeowner’s annual property tax assessment: This would be based on a percentage of the senior’s income, along with implementing a flat homestead exemption without means testing.
Provide incentives for landlords. Landlords should get a tax break for not raising the rent too much so that seniors can stay in their current apartments.
Reintroduce the Municipal Volunteer Property Tax Reduction Act, which would allow seniors to do volunteer work in municipalities in exchange for a reduction in property taxes.