The Purgatory of Housing

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:05

Some seniors are stuck in limbo between affordable housing programs, waiting lists, and Social Security earnings

Upper East Side Ellen Ehrlich will be 87 years old next month. She receives $1,959 a month from Social Security, well short of the $2,100 she needs for her rent-stabilized apartment on East 95th Street. Her adult children pick up the slack, but for Ehrlich, that's not a solution.

She retired in 2011 and was told she makes too much to qualify for the Mitchell Lama affordable housing program. A Section 8 program at Yorkville Gardens put her on a years-long wait-list.

"I need affordable housing, and I'm told I have a four- to five-year wait," said Ehrlich. "When you're 65, that's doable. When you're pushing 87 next month, it's not so doable."

Ehrlich, and others like her, are stuck in limbo between making too much money in retirement to qualify for some of the city's affordable housing programs, but not enough to afford living in the same neighborhoods where they once raised families. The programs they do qualify for have long lines of people ahead of them.

"I have a really great support group, but that's not the answer," said Ehrlich, who noted that many elderly New Yorkers do not have family looking out for them. "The city and state of New York has no room for seniors, even though we built and financed the city...and now we're being told there's no space for us."

Carolyn Silver is the Chief Program Officer at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, which connects mostly lower income residents on the East Side with health programs, legal advocacy, housing resources, educational opportunities and recreational activities. "It's a huge problem," said Silver, of those seniors who can't afford rents in the neighborhood. "There's probably thousands of seniors who ... realize they can't afford their rent based on their Social Security."

Silver said a lack of affordable housing throughout the city means that many groups ? not just seniors ? are vying for that limited stock. "It particularly effects seniors because they can't now go out and get more jobs," said Silver. "Moving, for an older adult, can be very traumatic because their doctors may be in this neighborhood, their social supports may be in this neighborhood, and so it's not so easy for them."

Lenox Hill's approach is to screen every incoming senior for every possible public government benefit that may be open to them. "Sometimes they're eligible for programs they don't know about, or they think they're not eligible but they might be, so there are some people we could save and keep their apartments," said Silver.

One popular program, the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, allows seniors who live in a rent-stabilized building and make less than $29,000 a year to apply to the city for a rent freeze. The city pays the difference to the landlord through a tax credit.

Silver said while this solution may not help Ehrlich afford her current rent, it could prevent future increases from adding to her cost of living. Then again, in a city like New York, sometimes a person's luck just runs out.

"Sometimes someone is getting everything or is ineligible for everything, and they can't afford the apartment, and then they have very few options," said Silver. "I've had some clients have to leave Manhattan and they go to the Bronx or Queens."

NYCHA's Section 8 program has 121,000 families on its wait-list. For a single person household looking for a Section 8 voucher, the income threshold is $26,900 a year. Even if a senior qualifies, the years-long wait and questionable conditions in some Section 8 buildings is enough to discourage interest.

As for whether she's fighting a losing battle, Silver said she tries not to think of it that way.

"I think it's very difficult, but we're always hopeful that something can be done," said Silver. "But taken to the extreme, the future prognosis is not good, and not just for seniors."

As for Ehrlich, she's still looking for a way to make ends meet without being what she feels is a burden to her family.

"If the city doesn't do something soon, or the state doesn't help, you're going to have a city of senior citizens living under the bridge," she said.

Are you looking for information on affordable housing programs and other resources? The Lenox Hill Neighborhood House can be reached at 212-744-5022.