While the seniors population is increasing steadily the supply of affordable seniors housing remains virtually unchanged. For many seniors on fixed incomes the only affordable option is ‘subsidized seniors housing’. Demand is outstripping supply in many highly populated urban areas. More attention must be focused on the need for a sufficient and sustainable supply of affordable housing for low-income seniors.
The need for social housing for this segment of our population is more pressing in some regions of Canada, especially in heavily populated areas where seniors have to wait years to be housed on account of very long waiting lists. We need to bear in mind that the supply of subsidized, or rent-geared-to income, housing for seniors varies by province and is the responsibility of the provincial and municipal levels of government. One part of the equation is the need for some real pension reform. The policies and regulations of the federal government impact the debate as they relate to a more fair and equitable pension system, allowing those on fixed incomes to properly keep up with the cost of living.
It is inexcusable that governments have not put in place a sustainable housing policy to meet the needs of this expanding segment of the population. The seniors in this demographic do not require ‘assisted living’ or ‘long term care’ accommodation. These seniors are healthy, can live independently but are challenged trying to survive on a fixed income. They do not have generous company pensions or personal savings. Seniors in lower income brackets never earned the kind of income that would have allowed them to create a nest-egg for their retirement. And in some instances retirees have seen their company pensions and personal savings evaporate due to the economic meltdown and corporate fraud. And those responsible for the economic fiasco were given a bailout… with our taxpayers dollars! Seniors have to opt for ‘subsidized seniors housing’ rather than ‘market value seniors housing’ which is the more expensive option. Renters, whether pensioners or not, should not be paying more than 33% of their monthly income on rental costs. For seniors on fixed incomes it should be less.
In addition to the cost differential and maintenance issues in social housing, healthy seniors seeking subsidized housing also face a huge waiting list. Seniors in less populated regions do not have to contend with the formidable waiting lists that seniors in large cities are faced with. Other than the obvious cost difference between ’subsidized seniors housing’ and ‘market value seniors housing’ there are also differences in maintenance standards and desirability of location.
It is well documented in the media that maintenance standards in social housing are sub-standard and unsatisfactory. Many of the buildings designated as social housing for seniors and other rents are ageing and need retrofitting and upgrading. (NOTE – Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has posted publications on this matter. Check their website: http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/index.cfm for projects on social housing in Canada) .
At the provincial level another option should be given due consideration. That is, to offer a subsidy to healthy seniors currently residing in ‘market value’ buildings who have no wish to move. This was suggested in the article “Seniors and Looming Housing Crisis” by a tenants group in Ontario. Designating or allocating a certain number of units in market value buildings for social housing is a reasonable and sensible solution to the housing crunch faced by low-income seniors. Benefits range from affordability, stability, no disruption and stress related to having to move, to the comfort of being able to remain in a familiar and convenient environment. This option would ease the demand for affordable housing for low-income seniors who can live independently.
The most effective option that has not been in the forefront of the debate is to increase the supply of affordable social housing for seniors by encouraging new construction. Why has there not been an increase in the construction of affordable seniors housing to meet the expanding population of seniors? We all recognize there has been an increase in demand for social housing due to the expanding population of seniors but there has not been an adequate response to meet the challenge. In the face of the changing demographics more government efforts should be invested in creating opportunities to increase the supply of social housing for needy seniors.
Clearly sustainable affordable housing for pensioners of modest incomes needs to have a higher priority on the agenda of governments. Government policy should encourage the construction of an adequate supply of social housing for seniors to meet the challenge. All levels of government need to cooperate in order to address this housing challenge to low-income seniors. With the increase in the senior population this issue will not go away. The outcome of finance minister Jim Flaherty’s public consultations on pension reform did not do much to address the concerns of seniors on modest incomes. (Refer to this link: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2010/03/24/flaherty-pensions.html)
In the absence of a more logical system for pension indexation, and with an inadequate supply of affordable housing for renters in this target group, we will continue the involuntary warehousing of a vulnerable segment of society. That is nothing to be proud of! Perhaps it’s time our governments take a good look at how other progressive countries are tackling this challenge and treating their senior citizens.