WORD ON THE STREET: In 20 years, more than 70 million Americans will have reached retirement age. By 2040, our senior population will have doubled. That means more demand for home and community-based services, more demand for transportation, and more demand for buildings and homes that are accessible.
But the size of our senior population isn't the only thing that's changing. Perhaps even more importantly, aging itself is in the midst of a transformation – one that will have lasting consequences for our families, our communities and our economy.
Indeed, given the desire for independence among seniors, ensuring seniors have quality affordable housing is, in some ways, more important than it has been in several generations. I'm proud to say that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides housing to over 1 million of our nation's seniors.
It's a commitment that begins with the Section 202 program, which has helped dramatically change the housing landscape for our nation's seniors. By engaging the private sector and the nonprofit and faith-based communities to produce and preserve affordable rental housing for our seniors, the Section 202 program has provided thousands of seniors the opportunity to live independently with dignity.
Today, Section 202 serves 130,000 older Americans – and even in this tough budget environment, we've requested nearly half a billion dollars for this critical program, including $90 million for service coordinators who will link residents with the supportive services they need. But even more importantly, this year, we're proposing to improve the way Section 202 funds are used to support new projects – focusing our investment on operating subsidies, and relying increasingly on state housing agencies to step in with the up-front capital and development oversight.
These changes – which build on changes in the Section 202 reform bill President Obama signed into law – allow HUD's resources to ensure that very low-income seniors – including those who are frail or at-risk of frailty – can benefit from existing mainstream affordable housing funded by sources like Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and the HOME program. As any owner or manager of senior housing knows, many low-income seniors cannot afford to pay rents that are high enough to even cover operating costs.Â
That's why the long-term rental assistance provided by the 202 program is so important. And with this proposal, HUD will be able to more effectively leverage private and local dollars to create far more units for older Americans than we otherwise would be able to in this fiscal environment – up to 3,400 new affordable, accessible homes this year alone.
This investment will not only allow seniors to age in residential settings rather than in nursing homes, but also provide critical services that will help reduce the need for expensive institutional nursing care and high Medicare and Medicaid costs.
That's a good deal for seniors and taxpayers alike. That's why we're piloting similar innovations in public housing. Indeed, while Section 202 is well known for being HUD's targeted housing program for seniors, we also serve more than 325,000 seniors in existing public housing.
As important as these resources are for every kind of affordable housing, they are absolutely essential for housing that serves elderly Americans. That's because in addition to trying to figure out how to pay for fixing a boiler or replacing a leaky roof, owners are also trying to figure out how to make their properties accessible to wheelchairs and on-site services.
These innovations in public housing and Section 202 will give communities more resources to make that possible – and in so doing, ensure HUD can keep one of our deepest, most historic commitments: providing quality, affordable housing to every senior who needs it. While these reforms are critical to preserving affordable housing for seniors, just as important are the steps we are taking to ensure housing is connected to the to services seniors need to spend their retirement years living with real independence.
The HUD-HHS partnership
For me, for President Obama and for partners like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), it's simple: When aging itself is undergoing such a dramatic transformation, government needs to change as well. That means getting stronger, more targeted information on what seniors need to successfully age in place. It means cutting through the red tape to forge new partnerships that better connect housing and supportive services.
In short, for the Obama administration it means a federal government doesn't tell seniors what they need, but actually listens to what they want. That's why HUD joined with HHS to design an Aging in Place demonstration for seniors in affordable housing.
Already, HUD and HHS have made enormous strides to promote independent living for the disabled community – to learn how public housing authorities and state Medicaid agencies can work together to support people with disabilities transitioning from institutional care to community living.
With this study, we are looking to develop a platform for supporting America's senior population – providing new information about how seniors receive healthcare services in HUD-assisted housing. And for the first time ever, this study will merge a number of databases compiled by HUD and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at HHS.
By designing a demonstration that connects HUD housing data with healthcare data compiled by HHS, we can begin to get an unprecedented picture of seniors living in affordable housing – from who they are and the scope of their health care needs, to the most cost-effective ways we can provide the services they need.
By integrating housing and services in unprecedented new ways, it means more seniors will have the chance to live independently for a longer period of time. And ultimately, it means more seniors, regardless of economic circumstance, will be able to live out their retirements not in institutions, but in their homes and in the communities where they built their lives and raised their families.
Shaun Donovan is secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This article is adapted and edited from a speech made before the Leadership Council of Aging Organization in Washington, D.C. The original text is available online.
(Photo courtesy of Buena Vista International)