Public housing assistance plays an important role in reducing cost burdens for nearly 3 million seniors across the nation. The Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation (PAHRC) reports the number of older adults living in a federally subsidized home increased by nearly 3% from 2019 to 2020, and that number continues to rise.
But although federal housing allows low-income seniors to live on their own, it tends to be associated with safety concerns. If your loved one lives in or is considering subsidized housing, here are some important considerations to keep in mind.
Types of federal housing available to seniors
To understand safety risks in a government-sponsored dwelling, it helps to know about the programs available to older adults.
Public housing – Public housing agencies (PHAs) operate properties or developments in three different categories: those open to all ages, those designated specifically for seniors, and those that allow seniors as well as people of all ages who have disabilities.
Housing Choice Voucher – The Housing Choice Voucher program, also referred to as Section 8 Vouchers or Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) largest rental assistance program, and the vouchers are available for families, the elderly and disabled persons. Recipients can find their own residence and choose from single-family homes, townhouses, mobile homes or apartments, as long as the landlord is willing to work with HUD.
Project-Based Rental Assistance – Project-Based Rental Assistance, also referred to as Section 8 Housing, is HUD’s second largest program and is administered to private landlords. Some Section 8 housing is designated for older adults and persons with disabilities, but is not exclusively available for seniors.
Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program – Section 202 is HUD’s only program specifically focused on adults 62 and older. The program provides private, nonprofit landlords with grants to build or rehab properties, as well as ongoing project-based rental assistance. Almost 7,000 Section 202 properties are located across the country.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the role of a landlord is to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing to a tenant. However, a landlord can only do so much to minimize crime around a property or development. HUD has banned all registered sex offenders, known drug users, and those who have manufactured methamphetamine from qualifying for federal housing assistance, but it’s up to each PHA to decide what type of criminal background they will allow tenants to have. Some PHAs exclude people who have committed violent crimes, fraud and drug trafficking, but some will allow convicted felons if the conviction is five to 10 years old.
Because low-income housing tends to be one of the only living options for recently incarcerated individuals, an elderly person could conceivably live in the same complex as a convicted criminal. In 2015, HUD released a rule ensuring PHAs and project owners don’t automatically bar people with criminal records from federally subsidized housing. And this past June, HUD secretary Marcia Fudge wrote a letter to PHAs and HUD grantees stating, “HUD is committed to taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the housing needs of returning citizens (recently released from prisons) and people with criminal records.”
She stated HUD will be developing additional tools and guidance to assist private landlords, PHAs and multifamily housing owners to ensure their applicant screening and tenant selection practices avoid unnecessarily overbroad denial of housing on the basis of criminal records. While this is a noble effort to reduce homelessness and encourage self-sufficiency, it can be concerning to consider who an elderly loved one could have for a neighbor.
Questions to ask a PHA or HUD regarding senior safety
Courtney Schweickhardt, a public service coordinator for seniors and disabled tenants in St. Louis, said the best way to ensure a loved one stays safe in federal housing is to visit them often.
“Criminals are deterred when family members visit throughout the day and at random times,” she said. “Those tenants tend to stay safer because criminals don’t know when someone will be coming to check on them.”
Besides making frequent drop-ins, Schweichardt said there are important questions to ask a property owner or HUD office regarding safety within the property.
- Is this housing exclusively for seniors?
In general, she said properties that only allow seniors are safer. Some blended developments accept people of all ages including tenants with mental disabilities, which can pose physical dangers for older, vulnerable adults.
- How do you screen applicants, and what are your restrictions?
Some property managers allow recently incarcerated individuals or those with recent drug charges, while some are more stringent with past convictions.
- What type of security measures do you offer?
She said most subsidized senior housing units include pull cords in the bathroom and bedroom that will call 911 if a tenant needs help. The cords also trigger a flashing light outside of the apartment so other community members can check on the tenant. The property should also include security cameras throughout the area.
- Can a family member install their own camera to keep an eye on a loved one?
Some families purchase their own smart cameras and receive notifications when someone enters a loved one’s home. Schweichardt said this offers peace of mind because family members can see if a burglary is happening, and also monitor how often aides are coming in and out.
- Do you have locks on cabinets, or do you offer lock boxes for valuables?
Medications left on counters or in unlocked cabinets make seniors targets for theft (sometimes even by trusted aides). All drugs should be locked up along with any jewelry, cash or credit cards.
- How close is the nearest bus stop?
While affordable public transportation can be an asset to seniors, it also offers convenient access to criminals looking for easy targets. Schweichardt said it’s best to avoid an ungated property that’s located near a bus stop.
The right subsidized housing can be a wonderful place for seniors
Despite safety concerns about federally subsidized housing, it allows low-income seniors to afford a place of their own. By doing some research and asking the right questions, your loved one can find a place they’re proud to call home.
“I’ve seen some tenants live in their homes for 10 or 20 years,” Schweichardt said. “They become part of a community that looks out for each other. It just takes finding the right property, and a family that’s willing to stay involved.”