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San Diego’s Senior Homelessness Crisis and the Role of Affordable Housing

When most people think about how they want to spend their golden years, they might dream about traveling, playing with grandkids, or enjoying hobbies like golf or gardening. Few imagine losing their homes, or worse, living on the street. But for a growing number of seniors in San Diego, that frightening prospect is a reality.

That was the take-home message from a discussion on the senior housing crisis hosted by San Diego Seniors Community Foundation at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest Housing and Transportation Summit on October 26. SDSCF Chief Programs and Community Engagement Officer Joe Gavin moderated a discussion with panelists Melinda Forstey, chief operating officer of Serving Seniors; Simonne Ruff, director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) San Diego; and Rebecca Louie, vice president and chief operating officer of Wakeland Housing and Development Corporation.

The panel opened with sobering statistics about the hardships faced by San Diego’s senior population. According to Forstey, eleven percent of California adults age 65 and older live at or below the poverty level. While this statistic is striking on its own, Forstey explained that it doesn’t tell the full story. The federal poverty level (FPL) is not adjusted for regional differences – meaning that it’s the same in California as in a state like Utah where dollars stretch much further.

Given San Diego’s high cost of living, a more accurate measure of economic hardship is the California Elder Economic Security Index. When you account for food, housing, transportation and healthcare expenses, 48 percent of California seniors do not have enough income to meet basic needs. This means making hard choices between buying food, paying for medicine, and paying rent each month.

As a result, seniors have become the fastest-growing segment of California’s homeless population. Ruff noted that, in 1990, one in eight homeless men were over age 55. Today that number is one in three. Last year alone, the number of unsheltered homeless seniors in San Diego County rose by 9 percent.

Homelessness is a traumatic experience for anybody, but especially for older adults. Just a few months without shelter can cause a senior’s physical and mental health to rapidly decline. According to Ruff, the life expectancy of a 50-year-old with a home is 82, while the life expectancy of a homeless 50-year-old is only 62. “Fifty is the new 75 when you’re homeless,” Ruff said.  

So, what is the solution? Building more affordable housing to start. California has only 22 affordable units available for every 100 extremely low-income households – less than any other state except Nevada. In San Diego County, there is a shortfall of 79,876 affordable units. While other avenues exist to help low-income households with rent – namely Section 8 housing vouchers – the average wait time for a voucher is more than 10 years.

map showing number of housing units available for every 100 extremely low income households nationwide

The need to build more affordable units to keep low-income seniors from sliding into homelessness is urgent. However, Louie noted that many barriers exist. Proposed affordable housing developments are often protested by the community and financing them is difficult. Even with tax credits, a significant funding gap remains between the cost of developing an affordable housing project and the mortgage loan a developer can get based on the rents future residents will pay. Cities and counties must step in to fill that gap in order for projects to be built.

Beyond traditional affordable housing, Louie discussed the role of supportive housing, which combines affordable housing with on-site services including employment services, health services, and substance abuse treatment. These services help formerly homeless seniors get back on their feet and remain housed for the long run, so the cycle of homelessness does not repeat itself.

While San Diego County has seen some progress in building affordable housing for seniors, there is still a long way to go. Louie highlighted Wakeland’s Talmadge Gateway – San Diego’s first 100 percent permanent supportive housing community for seniors who have been homeless – and shared renderings of Wakeland’s planned affordable community for seniors in Vista called The Grove. Forstey mentioned Serving Seniors’ new 62-unit development in Ramona, noting that it already has more than 3,000 names on the interest list. Even as new units come online, however, Ruff explained that a greater number of affordable units are set to expire in coming years, meaning the net supply is actually decreasing.

In order to reverse this trend, city and county governments will need to make a commitment to increasing affordable housing stock and investing in supportive housing. Forstey touched on encouraging data to support the business case for this. A Los Angeles initiative that moved 3500 formerly homeless people into permanent supportive housing found that, one year in, residents spent 75 percent less time in the hospital and made 70 percent fewer visits to the ER. For every $1 spent, the county saved $1.20. That kind of return on investment is hard to beat. As Louie put it, “housing is magic.”

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