Jade C. Williams
2020 was a year of immense change. The start of the new decade commenced with the first pandemic of our lifetime. The rippling effects of COVID-19 were unprecedented. In addition to seemingly inescapable illness and loss of life, the pandemic devastated our communities and tested the limits of our social service systems. During this time, vulnerable populations were even more endangered, especially seniors. Senior citizens have long been deemed a vulnerable population, and while they are not a monolith, there is a higher prevalence of chronic illness and limited mobility among the demographic. Most seniors rely on modest fixed incomes upon retirement, like SSI. Senior citizens are typically expected to leave the workforce as they approach retirement age, which stifles their opportunities to supplement any income and improve their economic stability.
Credit: Kübra Arslaner (2022)
In 2019, it was reported that 1 in 7 senior New Yorkers, those 65 and older, are in poverty. The surge in cost of living, coupled with the ways that the pandemic has decimated the pockets of most New Yorkers, places more obstacles in front of seniors who already grapple with economic instability. With an overwhelmed shelter system and dearth of affordable housing, it is clear that New York City is in the midst of a housing crisis. Currently, approximately 1.6 million seniors call New York City home. By 2040, it is estimated that nearly 20% of the city’s population will be senior adults. With less than twenty years until this demographic swells in size, it is vital to determine if New York City is on track to address the issues of economic stability and affordable housing among senior citizens.
While states like Florida have been known to attract senior retirees, there are many seniors who, whether due to preference or a lack of alternatives, remain in New York City, opting to age in place. The CDC defines aging in place as the “ability to live in one’s own home safely, independently, and comfortably regardless of age, income or ability level”. Housing that is affordable and accessible, both within the unit and outside of the building (like ramps that help those with walkers and wheelchairs to get into the building), and economic stability can make or break an aging in place experience. Without an affordable home and economic stability, a senior might find themselves in the throes of deep destitution and homelessness.
Economic Stability: Staying Afloat without a Life Jacket
The issue of economic instability among seniors extends beyond the onset of COVID-19. Prior to 2020, many senior New Yorkers were struggling financially. A report from the Food Bank for NYC found that emergency food providers, like pantries, experienced significant increases in visitors seeking food assistance in 2019, with 60% of the providers reporting an increase in seniors seeking food assistance during the previous year. Poverty among senior New Yorkers is most prominent among minorities, with Hispanic/Latinx New Yorkers representing 26%, Asian New Yorkers making up 22% and Black New Yorkers accounting for 19%. Immigrant seniors and senior women tend to fare poorly in New York City as well. Prior to 2020, it was reported that approximately 25% of immigrant seniors lived in poverty with a median income of just under $10,000 a year and even less in retirement savings. Just over 20% of senior women live in poverty. During the pandemic, some immigrants were excluded from receiving federal stimulus checks, which helped to ameliorate economic burdens for some. A few nonprofit organizations and donors came together to establish a fund for those left out.
An inability to stay in the workforce, whether due to ageism, illness or retirement, resigns struggling seniors to settle for governmental support like Supplemental Security Income, commonly known as SSI, or Social Security Disability Insurance, otherwise known as SSDI. Instances of ageism in the workplace and general job market can occur whether one is 42 or 62; though, the older that one is, the more difficult it can be to continue to access the job market or maintain one’s place in the workforce. In 2019, the monthly SSI benefit for a single senior was just $771. For seniors who solely rely on SSI benefits, they must pay rent and utilities, feed themselves and afford day to day expenses with less than $1,000 a month. In a city where half of senior New Yorkers do not have money in traditional retirement accounts and 40% have less than $10,000 saved up, the issue of economic vulnerability is particularly prevalent.
Housing: Little Resources, Few Options
In 2017, then NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report that acknowledged the challenges to aging in place in New York City and what would need to be done to address and overcome such obstacles. According to Stringer, nearly 60% of seniors who rent their apartments are rent burdened, meaning that more than 30% of their monthly income is spent on rent. Some programs currently exist to help ease the financial burden, but do they really go far enough?
Established in 1970, SCRIE, or the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, is a city-based rent freeze program that locks in a senior citizen tenant’s rent as long as they are at least 62 years of age, have a household income of no more than $50,000 and reside in an eligible apartment. DRIE, the Disability Rent Increase Exemption, operates in a similar fashion, though the tenant must be at least 18. While the rent increase exemption programs are useful resources, there are some drawbacks. For starters, a senior New Yorker who meets all of the SCRIE criteria is not automatically enrolled in this program. They must complete an online application as well as renewal applications each year. However, the fact that 30% of seniors do not have internet access at home turns this process into an obstacle course. If one were to lose their income while enrolled in the program, clear and explicit instructions on how to request and secure a rent decrease are not easily available. SCRIE and DRIE are only valid if one lives in a regulated apartment, like a rent stabilized or rent controlled unit. This excludes a handful of seniors who would otherwise benefit from the program. In other cases, one might become eligible for or aware of the program once their rent is more than 30% of their income, securing the program’s benefits too little too late. Homebase, another city housing resource, provides those who are low-income and at risk of entering the shelter system with resources to help them stay in their homes or find alternatives. However, the program’s funding tends to target families with children, leaving very little for seniors. The lack of an impenetrable safety net leaves seniors exposed to the risk of eviction.
Amidst a persistent housing crisis, a 2019 study from the University of Pennsylvania paints a concerning picture. The ubiquity of homelessness among seniors, especially men, has been trending upward since 1990. The number of homeless seniors has increased by 300% within the last 18 years. It is predicted that the homeless senior population, within the city’s Department of Homeless Services system, will increase to 7,000 between now and 2030 if appropriate measures are not taken.
Credit: Denise Duplinski (2020)
Accessibility within one’s home is another major housing factor. 70% of the city’s apartments require using at least one set of stairs in order to access the apartment. This can be challenging for older New Yorkers, especially those who are disabled. Even within the unit, modifications like handlebars in the shower or wider hallways and doorways to accommodate wheelchairs are helpful additions that can make life easier. Through funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 202 program, housing specifically designed for seniors to live independently and benefit from in-house support services has been established throughout the five boroughs. Similar to the criteria for SCRIE and DRIE, prospective residents must pay 30% of their income, have a low or moderate income and be at least 62. However, there are 200,000 seniors on the waiting list for a spot in such housing, with the average waiting time being at least seven years. Seniors need housing that is both affordable and accessible in order to age in place.
Following the emergence of COVID-19 and subsequent shelter-in-place orders, the city began to experience the economic impact of the pandemic. In an effort to maintain frugality and avert the risk of closing their business for good, many businesses resorted to laying off workers. Over the course of the pandemic, the unemployment rate among senior men and women increased compared to younger age groups. Between 2019 and 2020, the unemployment rate among those 65 and older nearly doubled. In addition to being pushed out of the workforce, a fear of contracting the virus, especially if immunocompromised, was an additional motivator. Seniors who left the workforce, regardless of the reason, had no choice but to collect less in benefits than if they were able to leave the workforce on their own terms. Americans can only begin receiving monthly SSI payments at the age of 62. However, they can receive 100% of their benefits if they wait until they are 66. Those who are able to delay their retirement until they are 70 years old can receive their full SSI benefits with a bonus, at 126.7%, an incentive for waiting beyond the required age.
Social services, especially ones catering to senior New Yorkers, felt the pressure of the city’s financial strain as well. Roughly six months into the pandemic, the city opted to cut $15 million dollars worth of funding reserved for the Department for the Aging out of their $88 billion dollar budget for the 2021 fiscal year. This had a ripple effect on senior centers, especially those that provided free meals; such centers were forced to let staff go and cut other services to save money. Social service staff who remain report feeling burnt out as they struggle to make ends meet, earning modest wages in exchange for taxing work. Though the cost of living adjustment has been implemented with the intention of increasing wages, many organizations with city contracts to provide social services to seniors are still recuperating from the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
Credit: Kampus Production (2021)
The landscape of housing in New York City shifted too. New York State Governor Kathy Hochul allowed the eviction moratorium, which was put in place to prevent New Yorkers from being evicted during the pandemic, to expire in January 2022. Those in need were then directed to ERAP, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, funded with $1.6 billion dollars for assisting those who could not pay rent because of COVID-19. However, it is estimated that the majority of funding will dry up as soon as the middle of January 2023. 2022 also saw the largest rent hike increase in nearly ten years, impacting at least 1 million rent stabilized apartments, many of which house New York’s seniors.
Here, Now, and the Future
Resources for economic burdens and solutions to housing issues, especially for seniors, have been few and far between over the last two years. The reliance on patchwork remedies and shoddy safeguards have resulted in some of the city’s most vulnerable groups falling through the cracks. The effects of COVID-19 have illustrated just how crucial it is for a stronger investment in the city’s senior services.
In January 2021, then-Deputy Mayor of NYC for Housing and Economic Development, Vicki L. Been, in conjunction with a host of non-profit organizations and New York City agencies, released a guide outlining the city’s fair housing goals through 2025, along with the strategies and plans they will utilize and implement to achieve them. The overarching goal is to increase access to quality, affordable housing for all New Yorkers, especially those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. The plan also entails the intention to create integrated housing for seniors and those who are disabled that is equipped with accessibility features. Released in June 2022, Mayor Eric Adams’ nearly 100-paged “Housing Our Neighbors” maps out several approaches to address the city’s housing and homelessness issues. The guide acknowledges the fact that there are SCRIE/DRIE-eligible people who are not enrolled in the programs, with part of the goal being increased enrollment in both programs and assist with renewal. While this is promising, the Mayor controversially announced a series of austere budget cuts between September and November 2022. The NYPL’s budget will be reduced by nearly $35 million between 2023 and 2026 and, perhaps more shockingly, the city’s Department of Education will be subjected to a nearly $500 million dollar budget cut. If such prominent public services like education and the public library system are not immune to budget cuts, it is difficult to believe that the city will be able to remain financially committed to improving housing and economic stability conditions for seniors.
In order to ensure that the city is on track to seamlessly adapt to this demographic shift over the next eighteen years, there needs to be a stronger financial investment in social service programs to support and retain the staff who serve the city’s seniors. For those who age in place, social service programs within the community are the primary lifelines in senior’s day to day life. SCRIE and DRIE enrollment should be fielded through the city’s social service programs to add an avenue for seniors to learn about the program and get application assistance. For seniors who are approaching 62, a notice should be sent from the city informing them of their potential eligibility along with instructions on how to apply and where to seek resources. There needs to be an increase in affordable housing equipped with aging-in-place friendly home modifications to keep seniors safe in their homes. By 2040, the youngest baby boomer will be 76 and the oldest millennial will be 59. It is imperative that the city starts to act now, with urgency; a failure to do so would leave the current generation, and the many that will follow, stranded.
1. Gonzalez-Rivera, C. (2013). The New Face of New York’s Seniors. Center for an Urban Future.
2. Gonzalez-Rivera C., Finkelstein, R., Andrews, K., & Paden-Williams, B. (2021). Aging in Everyone’s Business: Policies for Building a New York for All Ages. LiveOn NY & Hunter College – Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging.
3. Kaufman, S. M., Kaputkin, A., O’Connell, J., & Marulli, D. (2016). Older New Yorkers and Access-A-Ride Forecasts. NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.
Jade C. Williams is a proud New Yorker and graduate student in the Master of Urban Policy and Leadership program. She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology from Boston University and currently works at the American Civil Liberties Union in the National Political Advocacy Department. Her interests include housing and public education policy.