State facing senior housing needs

West Virginia, like much of the rest of the nation, is on the brink of an elder housing crisis. With an ever aging population -- 20 percent of whom are expected to be over the age of 65 by 2025, according to Keren Wilson of the Jesse F. Richardson Foundation -- housing professionals are looking for ways beyond nursing homes or assisted living facilities to provide affordable senior living.

Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Clinton administration and now chairman of urban homebuilding organization CityView companies, said 2.8 million Americans turned 65 in 2011, which isn’t at first a huge problem.

“People at 65 can live on their own. But at the higher end of that, when people get to their 85’s, we’ve got some really, really big issues in this country,” Cisneros said, as he addressed attendees of the first annual West Virginia Housing Conference on Wednesday at the Charleston Marriott hotel.

Dave Clark, conference committee chairman and past president of CommunityWorks in West Virginia -- a coalition of developers, public housing leaders and a variety of housing-focused organizers -- said the conference was meant to bring together a “cross-section” of housing organizations and service providers to address related issues in West Virginia. The conference will continue on Thursday and Friday.

“The housing world is just changing dramatically. Housing needs are changing dramatically. The funding and the financing tools are kind of all up in the air right now, so I think everybody recognizes that we need to be looking across sectors and that the silos we’ve been working in for the last decade, really, are no longer serving us well,” Clark said.

Some of the major challenges cities and states all over the nation face are a senior housing boom, a lack of workforce housing and a significant increase in vacant and dilapidated housing. Clark said vacant and dilapidated structures in West Virginia have increased 30 percent over the last decade.

Housing authorities and nonprofits are also contending with a dwindling funding pool.

“Housing is taking a huge hit. We’ve seen dramatic cuts to a lot of the federal programs that we all use for housing development,” Clark said.

Wilson, a West Virginia native who spoke in a session dedicated to national trends in housing for the elderly, said housing policy has failed in the United States.

“It has failed to produce enough affordable housing and falls further behind every year,” Wilson said.

While Cisneros said a lack of senior housing would be a problem in the future, Wilson said it is “a now problem.”

“All the data tells us that homelessness, inadequate housing and housing burden has significantly increased over the past decade,” Wilson said. And federal programs that use medical models to provide needs-based services make it difficult for seniors who don’t fall into certain categories to get access to housing and services.

“One of the fundamental issues in trying to figure out settings is what kind of impairments does this person have,” Wilson said of placing a senior in appropriate housing.

The medical model “makes it really hard for us to deal with the issues of disabilities or frailties of aging people.” Most people in their 90s can be frail “even when they’re performing at peak,” Wilson said.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities might not be right for every elderly person. And some might only be eligible for short-term facility coverage from programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Some might want to stay in their homes, but have home health visits.

Alternatives are popping up all over the country, though. Wilson outlined several senior housing trends that are being implemented, though “none of them is a silver bullet,” and Wilson said she sees supported living as more challenging than independent living.

There are “green houses,” which are assisted living homes that are associated with skilled nursing facilities. Twenty states have waivers that allow federal money to pay for such housing, but West Virginia is not one of them, Wilson said.

There are also “planned development units,” which are small housing developments typically built for those 55 years of age and older. Another type of living called “villages without walls” consists of active seniors who have a cooperative living arrangement, where “they support one another and their needs.”

Many of these housing solutions still allow for seniors to have access to services related to health and meal delivery, Wilson said.

But all these models are difficult for low income people to be part of. Wilson suggested implementing incentive programs that would put credit into someone’s Social Security earnings if they were a service provider. She also promoted a community health approach to senior living that would “demedicalize” services, as well as creating health clubs that seniors could pay into. Those fees would eventually fund housing and necessary services.

“This is the time when we have to be inventive about these things. What we’ve been doing is not working,” Wilson said.

Reach Rachel Molenda at, 304-348-5102 or follow @rachelmolenda on Twitter.

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