by Carolyn Bick
As a senior on disability, Laura Hale lives on exactly $971 per month, not counting the $182 per month she receives in food stamps.
The 65-year-old Hale lives in the basement of her son’s house, a few blocks away from the Southeast Seattle Senior Center, where she regularly plays bingo on Wednesdays. Like many seniors who live on fixed income, such as disability payments or Social Security, Hale cannot independently afford to live in the area anymore, thanks to increasing costs of living, as developers move in. And like many seniors, Hale is on several city housing waiting lists that are literally thousands of names and several years long.
Hale is a cancer survivor, has gout and rheumatoid arthritis, and is medically unable to work.
For 20 years, Hale had her own apartment in an old house in South Seattle. It wasn’t large, she said, and there were numerous problems — cracking and caving plasterboard tiles on the roof; a fridge from the 1950s or 1960s that regularly grew mold — but it was home, and she was content there.
She paid $550 per month in rent, and the landlord tended to repair the things she asked him to fix, like her water heater. But when she asked the landlord to look at her ceiling, she instead received a letter from him telling her she had to be out by Sept. 1, 2016. He said he was selling the property.
“Now, I don’t know if he did sell it or not, because I know that after I moved out, put my stuff in storage, that that place stayed vacant for nine months,” Hale said. “So, I don’t know if he rented it out to increase the rent from what I was paying or not.”
In a panic, Hale called her son, who didn’t hesitate to invite her to live with him and his wife for as long as she needed. Two years later, Hale still hasn’t been able to find an affordable place to live in South Seattle, and is still waiting for any of the housing authorities to call her.
“I called one place to ask them how far down was I on the list, and they couldn’t give me that information. They couldn’t tell me,” Hale said, recalling her attempt to figure out how much longer she would have to wait for an apartment at a Capitol Hill housing location. “When your name gets close to the top of the list, they said, we’ll contact you, and you come in and fill the application out, or whatever. So, I don’t know.”
A waiting game
Southeast Seattle Senior Center Social Worker Jaime Clark said she has seen many similar scenarios as Hale’s. It’s a growing trend among senior renters over the last few years, she said, particularly amongst seniors of color. It’s almost impossible to get on senior-specific or low-income voucher program housing lists, she said, because they are only open for brief windows of time, and spots on them are in such high demand. And even when one does get on a list, she said, it can be literally thousands of names long, leaving seniors in precarious limbo for years, before the housing authority calls them.
“I have a client who is number 3,000 on the list, and … they just signed up,” Clark said, noting that King County opened its list briefly in 2017 and that the list has been closed ever since. Clark said many housing authorities, like Renton Housing Authority, are not accepting new applicants because they are overwhelmed. “There are so many people on the list that it wouldn’t make sense to take any more people, because who knows how many years out those would be?”
According to the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), in total, as of October 2018, there were 2,640 seniors on SHA housing waitlists, nearly all waiting for the Seattle Senior Housing Program. This is more than three times the number in 2012, when the number stood at 749. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of seniors applying for senior-specific housing jumped from 1,738 to 2,339, more than double the yearly average increase since 2012. There are 317 seniors on waiting lists for its Housing Choice Voucher Program, which includes households with at least one member aged 62 years or older. These are all households with any member 62 years or older, as well as those households already housed with SHA who may have had an application in for a transfer to another SHA program or building, which leads to overlap among SHA’s housing programs.
In order to stay on SHA’s waiting lists, applicants must regularly check in with the housing authorities, or risk losing their spots on these lists. Clark said the check-ins are “basically like a part-time job or a full-time job,” and this presents an extra challenge for those with limited mobility or who are living with dementia.
“It’s a lot to keep track of for anyone, but, as we age, we know that cognition becomes just more difficult. Memory loss becomes an issue,” Clark said. “So, for example, there are a few clients I check in with once a month, because of memory loss.”
SHA Communications Manager Susanna Linse said the rationale behind requiring phone, online, or in-person check-ins is that “there has to be some way to manage the waitlist,” and keep it up-to-date. For instance, if a person no longer needs housing, their spot may be filled by another who does. She said the authority does not have programs in place to help seniors who suffer from limited mobility or memory issues stay on these lists, but said some have case managers to help them.
According to estimates in a January 2018 report by the Washington State University’s Metropolitan Center for Applied Research & Extension, Seattle’s total households will begin to outpace available housing by 2030, which will foment the breakup of households and further drive up housing costs. The report recommends the city prioritize creating housing, especially for households with members ages 55 and older.
The same report shows that about 45.2 percent of households with an older adult are low- to extremely-low income, making housing in King County unaffordable for more than half them. In households with members aged 65 or older, nearly a quarter are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, while more than a third are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line.
About a quarter of households with members ages 60 or older rent their homes. Of those, more than half are either moderately cost-burdened, where rent is 30 percent to 50 percent of household income, or severely cost-burdened, where rent is more than 50 percent of household income. Among those who own their own homes, about 39 percent have a mortgage payment. Of those, 40 percent are moderately or severely cost-burdened.
But despite the need, there are a little more than 55,000 affordable housing units specifically geared towards older adults in King County, making up just 6.2 percent of the total housing stock.
Because most seniors live on some manner of fixed income, Clark said, they can’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore. Most of the seniors with whom Clark works receive between just $725 and $1,000 per month, hardly enough to keep up with rental costs that average just above $1,400 for a studio.
But even those with whom Clark works who have higher incomes through Social Security, at around $1,500 per month are also feeling the pressures of increasing costs, particularly because they make too much money to qualify for Medicare premium payment assistance. If a Washington state single senior’s monthly income is more than $1,366, they must pay a premium for Medicare, which sits at $134 per month for those making less than $85,000 per year.
“They make just enough where they can’t qualify for the help from the programs, and that is really challenging, even more challenging, in some cases, than folks of a lower income, because then they can qualify for a few more programs,” Clark said.
Living with family
Like Hale, other seniors sometimes live with relatives. And while it’s better than outright homelessness, living with family members presents its own challenges. It not only deprives seniors of their independence, but also means they may find themselves in the middle of a couple’s marital problems or financial issues, Clark said.
Hale isn’t alien to family strife. She said her presence in her son’s house has been a source of constant tension between her son and his wife. Her daughter-in-law doesn’t like her, she said, so she tries to stay out of her way, and in her basement room, when she is in the house.
Hale will get some coffee, say good morning, but said her daughter-in-law won’t respond. If Hale needs to make an appointment, she calls Metro for an Access bus.
“I don’t ask her if she isn’t doing anything, could she take me,” Hale said. “It makes me feel like a third wheel. I try not to get in her and my son’s business.”
In order to try to help out, Hale said she gives her son $400 per month for rent, and $300 for utilities, leaving her with $271 per month for necessities and food her food stamp money won’t cover. She also said she buys her own food, so as not to feel as though she is mooching off her son’s generosity. Still, she said, this leaves her with almost no extra money. And even though she’s in dire need of new clothes — her 70-pound and continuing weight loss, following her cancer diagnosis, has left her clothes hanging off her body — she can’t afford any. She can’t even afford to put away money into a savings account, which hampers the apartment-finding process further, as she has no money for an initial deposit.
A self-described loner, Hale said she mostly keeps to herself, save for the few friends she has made at bingo on Wednesdays. But she wasn’t always alone. Before she was forced to move, she had a dog, her companion of seven years. When she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, shortly after she moved into her son’s basement, she was forced to give the dog away.
“I didn’t want to, but it was best for me, and for him,” she said.
Her world shrank, too. Most of her possessions are now in a storage unit, and she has decided to donate her car, because she can’t afford to get the transmission fixed. She relies on the City’s Access Transportation services and her own two feet to get her where she needs to go.
Including Hale, Clark said she is currently working with about 10 seniors who are actively looking for housing. In some cases, she said, the landlords are “being very generous” and not raising the rents on their senior tenants, but this is usually not the case. This means fast-dwindling bank accounts for these tenants, with no way for them to save money or pay for medical emergencies.
“A lot of people I am working with are trying to make ends meet, and have been doing it for a number of years, and are really skilled at it,” Clark said. “But, sometimes, something happens, like a broken hip, and they will have a lot of medical bills, and then the system that they had, balancing everything, will be out of whack.”
Though her monthly income is just about the same as Hale’s, 81-year-old Teresa, who declined to give her last name, pays for her own apartment. The problem is that her income isn’t stable: as a lone immigrant from Hong Kong, Teresa relies on family members’ generosity to keep her afloat.
“In my family, people, they give me [money] every month, because I have a big family — sister, brother, niece. Sixteen people, together,” Teresa said. “They are nice to me. They say, ‘When you need more, then you say it.’ Just like that. So far, maybe, I have about $1,000 a month.”
When Teresa started living in her current apartment in 2013, she said she only paid $720 per month. She now pays $850 each month to rent the single-room apartment in an affordable housing complex in the New Holly neighborhood, leaving her with about $150 to pay her bills, as well as to buy food and necessities. Like Hale, Teresa cannot save any money, and relies on once-per-week deliveries from the Rainier Valley Food Bank to keep food on the table. She also doesn’t buy anything she doesn’t need.
Teresa has been on various housing waiting lists for six years, when she started working with Clark to find a more affordable place to live. Long wait times aren’t unusual for the SHA’s senior housing program. According to the SHA’s website, there are only two senior-specific apartment buildings in South Seattle. One is Columbia Place, which the SHA lists as having an average wait time of 1–2 years for a one-bedroom apartment. The other is South Park Manor in Georgetown, which the site lists as having an average wait time of 2–3 years for a one-bedroom apartment. While both buildings have two-bedroom apartments, they are listed as “Rarely Available.”
This wait time for seniors only increases in SHA’s low-income public housing program. There are six South Seattle low-income public housing buildings, with the lowest wait time for a one-bedroom listed as between 3 to 4 years at Barton Place. This does not include SHA’s scattered sites throughout Seattle. The longest wait times for low-income public housing are at Rainier Vista, with an indeterminate Rarely Available wait time for a one-bedroom, and between 6 to 8 years for two bedrooms or more.
Though Teresa’s wait time may appear unusually long, at least for senior housing, Susanna Linse cautioned that the wait times listed on the website are just averages, and the reality is that spots open up only when people move out or pass away.
Then it’s too late
For some seniors, it is already too late to avoid living on the street. Charles, a 61-year-old who asked that his last name not be used, recently moved into one of Seattle’s homeless shelters. He couldn’t remember the shelter’s name, but said he doesn’t spend much time there, anyway.
“At my age, it’s kind of dangerous. Violence.” Charles said, speaking softly into the phone, so he didn’t disturb other Federal Way Library patrons. He was sheltering at the library for the day, in order to stay out of the chilly rain. “People get upset. You got people coming through there — it’s not the way the media makes it out to be, when you’re actually living in it.”
Charles is one of at least 727 seniors who are homeless in the King County area, according to 2018’s Point in Time Count findings. This number isn’t likely to drop, either: according to the 2018 Washington State University report, older adults “are at greater risk of homelessness than at any other time in recent history.”
Charles came out to Seattle from Michigan, where he had been working in automobile manufacturing. He said he originally intended to get a job with Boeing or another manufacturing company, when he moved to the city in 2016, but, once here, he was diagnosed with health problems that meant he couldn’t work, including chronic pain. He was vague with details, but said he bounced in and out of unstable living situations, including living with his daughter. But she has kids of her own, he said, and he didn’t want her to think he would continue to depend on her for a roof over his head.
So, having nowhere to go, with Clark’s help, Charles moved into the shelter in September. He’s also enrolled in chronic pain management and diabetes programs, thanks to Clark’s intervention. He said there are good nights and bad nights at the shelter, when it comes to noise levels and getting enough sleep, but that’s to be expected, Charles said.
“When you go from having and get in a situation, where you lose everything, like hurricanes, or you lost a job income, and you go from a certain lifestyle and living to nothing, you become … hostile. Angry. You start lashing out, and, sometimes, you actually try to cure the problem by creating another problem,” Charles said.
Charles declined to say how much money he gets in disability payments, because the number embarrasses him. What he now makes in a month, he said, he used to make in a week.
“To me, that’s an economical shock. You work all your life, and because of [a] health situation, you realize that you become part of the outcast crowd, because of your finances,” Charles said. “You become a victim, and that alone makes you depressed.”
Charles and Clark are currently working to get him into housing, but because the lists he’s on are so long, he doesn’t expect to get a place to live before his 90-day term at the shelter is up. Not that he’s only worried about where he will go at night, as the days get wetter and colder: during the course of the interview, Charles was kicked out of the Federal Way Library. He said he didn’t know why he was kicked out, since he wasn’t yelling or cursing.
“That is why, when I see this kind of stuff now, I don’t really feel so off-centered about why they vent like they do. Now I know what makes them vent!” he exclaimed. “I am trying to get my life together. I am not dressed in a suit. I look rough, but still — where’s the humanity? Where is the dignity?”