Seniors Struggling with Affordable, Safe Housing in West County

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News Report, Ann Bassette and Malcolm Marshall
Video, Ann Bassette

Deborah Stein says she feels desperate. Between flood insurance and property taxes, the 67-year-old San Pablo resident can no longer afford to stay in her home.

Stein says she’s living on $1400 a month and her house payments have gone up $300 in the two last years.

“It’s very stressful. $900 is going to my house payment and the rest I’m supposed to live on,” said Stein, who says she lost half of her retirement in the stock market crash.

Stein was one of about 130 seniors who packed the San Pablo Senior Center to discuss affordable housing and other issues affecting Contra Cost County’s senior citizens at a town hall meeting sponsored by the West County Senior Coalition and the City of San Pablo.

Inside the center, chairs were shifted to make room for canes and walkers as seniors gathered over hot coffee to listen and voice their needs.

County Supervisor John Gioia described senior citizens as the “largest growing demographic in our country, in our state and in our county.” Seniors now make up 14 percent of Contra Costa’s population (about 150,000 people), according to the U.S. Census.

Congressman Mark DeSaulnier said the rising cost of housing in the Bay Area is “leaving behind those who need housing and assistance the most, including the elderly,” adding that programs that provide housing assistance to these populations “benefit not only our seniors, but our communities as a whole.”

According to report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are a total of 23 federal housing programs that target or have special features for the elderly.

Still, Gioia said there is a substantial shortfall of homes available to the low- and extremely low-income in Contra Costa County, where the  average monthly rent of a two-bedroom apartment is $1631.

“As we have more and more seniors who have more and more limited income, the problem will continue to get worse,” said Gioia.

The rising cost of rent leaves little left over for basic necessities for seniors who are on fixed incomes.

“I’m on a fixed income of less than $1,000,” said Betty Nicole Flowers, 68. “You build affordable housing for $800. How is that affordable? We really need to have a conversation about what’s affordable,” she said, as shouts of  “Yeah!” erupted in agreement.

Flowers said elected officials need to start thinking outside of the box to solve the housing issue, especially for seniors.

“Why couldn’t they turn the hospital that was closed, Doctors Medical Center, into affordable housing?” Flowers asked. “Another option would be looking at some of the warehouses and some of the spaces that have been abandoned and turning them into affordable studio units.”

“There’s also the old concept of affordable housing co-ops,” she added. “And I like the idea of intergenerational because not all seniors want to be in a senior complex.”

But affordability isn’t the only concern, said Ella Jones, 73, who is a member of the Contra Costa County Advisory Council on Aging, an advisory group appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Jones says many seniors in the county also struggle to find safe housing.

“No senior building I’ve visited here has any kind of security to monitor who comes and goes,” said Jones. “That’s an issue where I live at El Portal Gardens. Homeless people have been known to come in and sleep in the stairwells and hallways. I’m in the house shut in before dark unless my daughter or young friends take me, because I don’t feel safe.”

Other seniors recounted experiences of feeling that they had to compromise their safety in order to live in affordable housing.

“There is some housing in Richmond where the seniors have been coupled with young, addicted people where the seniors have to be in the house by 4:00 pm to feel safe coming in. And then, you have to get on the elevators with drunk, drugged up people in order to have affordable housing, and you don’t know if you’re going to make it to your floor with your wallet,” said one member of the crowd during a portion of the meeting reserved for comments from the audience.

Along with increasing wages and better-paid jobs, Gioia said more funding for affordable housing needs to be created. For example, some advocates have discussed a statewide bond measure that would help fund the construction of more affordable housing. So far, though, the measure has not gotten enough support to make it into the ballot.

For now, Gioia said, cities need to do their part to prioritize affordable housing. “Part of that is getting city councils to change the zoning to allow that to happen,” he said.

“Every city on the county needs to do its fair share,” said Gioia. “And that’s not happening.”

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