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July 28, 2016

In-house ‘advocates’ help seniors thrive in low-income housing

  • A Bellwether Housing program connects seniors with services like food banks and health care to improve their long-term housing stability and reduce their risk of homelessness.
    Bellwether Housing


    Seattle is facing one of its biggest crises in the city’s history: affordability. Hardly a day goes by without some discussion about what can be done to make housing — and, therefore, living — more affordable for everyday residents.

    The dynamics behind the rising costs of housing are complex, for sure, but the crisis seems to be rooted in a thriving economy that spurs strong job growth and greater demand for housing near jobs, schools, retail and other services. Seattle’s growing reputation for its overall quality of life, mild weather and natural scenic beauty can’t be discounted, either, given the growing number of people moving to this area from places all around the world.

    No matter the cause, our local housing crisis doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, a recent report from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service has median-home prices inching near $700,000 in the city, among the highest in the country.

    Perhaps more importantly, apartments aren’t faring well, either. Earlier this month, Zillow reported that multifamily rents are rising faster in Seattle than any other metro area in the U.S. The situation has become so dire that the mayor has created the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, to help address the housing affordability crisis we’re facing in the city.

    Photo by Stephanie Guerrero [enlarge]
    The 82-unit First and Vine Apartments in Seattle is one of several properties for low-income seniors managed by Bellwether Housing.

    Struggles for seniors

    While much of the affordability discussion has centered around workers and families, it’s the senior demographic that can sometimes be forgotten. Now, more than ever, elders in Seattle are struggling to make ends meet for basic life needs, including safe, affordable housing. And with little to no opportunity to increase their annual income, seniors aren’t readily helped by strong economic growth.

    The number of seniors in this area is only increasing, too. According to Seattle-King County Public Health, in just the past decade alone the average life expectancy here climbed approximately four years — to nearly 78 years of age.

    Local organizations like Bellwether Housing are working to fill the gap. We’re collaborating with the city, local advocacy groups and other community partners to help provide affordable housing, among many other critical services, for seniors at or below the poverty line.

    For more than 36 years, Bellwether, the largest nonprofit affordable housing provider in King County, has created housing affordability so that people of all incomes, ages and communities can thrive. Bellwether currently houses 3,200 low-income individuals each year throughout Seattle. We strive to be a force against rising income inequality, unequal access to opportunity and geographic class segmentation — forces that undermine the economic, social, environmental and physical health of our communities.

    Housing is not enough

    Bellwether manages a portfolio of 30 properties throughout Seattle, including three Housing and Urban Development Section 8 properties for seniors and people living with disabilities. These properties — First and Vine and Security House apartments in Belltown, and Meridian Manor in Northgate — have been critical in our ability to house some 500 residents.

    While affordable housing is important to low-income tenants, including seniors, conquering other risk factors can have a cumulative effect on enhancing a resident’s life prospects. When immediate needs are addressed, residents are less likely to fall behind on rent or be evicted. Additionally, when residents are stable and healthy, they are able to improve their surrounding community by taking part in community activities and by contributing to the economic life of the neighborhood.

    One of the ways we’ve added value to our affordable-housing model for seniors is Bellwether’s resident services coordination program.

    Launched in 2011, the program is designed to help low-income tenants find and access supportive services and community assets that foster positive outcomes, support long-term housing stability and reduce the risk of homelessness. While we don’t provide direct services, Bellwether is committed to helping residents be as stable and successful as possible in their affordable apartments by working with social-service partners and our own property management staff — a cooperation that can be critical to underserved seniors.

    Photo courtesy of Bellwether Housing
    A Bellwether service coordinator helped 74-year-old resident Tony Foz navigate the process for gaining U.S. citizenship.

    Overcoming barriers

    Our resident service coordinators wear a variety of hats. On any given day, they act as advocates, liaisons, mediators, language interpreter and concierges. Typical tasks include clarifying Social Security Supplemental Income benefits; supporting residents who are grieving the loss of a spouse; helping to identify potential scam letters; and connecting residents with resources like food and clothing banks, health care, employment services and counseling.

    Sometimes, the needs of seniors are more specialized. Many of our residents face language- and cultural-based obstacles that range well beyond the typical needs of low-income residents. To that end, there are at least nine foreign languages spoken by residents across our apartment portfolio. And, in Bellwether’s HUD Section 8 apartment buildings, some 30 percent of our residents have limited English proficiency.

    For tenants like Tony Foz, access to translators and other service providers has been a key to successful affordable living. Foz, a Meridian Manor resident, is a 74-year-old man who years ago immigrated to Seattle from the Philippines. Foz had always dreamed of gaining his citizenship, but could never afford the $680 fee, much less navigate the complicated naturalization process.

    In 2014, our resident service coordinator aligned Foz with citizenship classes through Asian Counseling and Referral Services, and arranged for a tutor to come and educate him and other residents about written and oral requirements. In 2014, Foz fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming a U.S. citizen.

    Seattle’s affordability crisis is impacting hundreds of thousands of residents, including countless seniors with limited income, and language and other cultural barriers that make life here a daily challenge. With nonprofits like Bellwether, working with city of Seattle leaders and community-based service providers, we are helping low-income elders to live happy, healthy and productive lives and realize a future they once thought impossible.

    Sue Selman is the director of property management at Bellwether Housing, a Seattle-based nonprofit that serves low-income working people, their families and independent seniors in Washington state through the development and management of affordable apartments.

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