Homeless People Brace for Senior Only Policy at CMHA

Interview by Pamela Vincent

Editor’s Note: Grapevine reporter Pamela Vincent sat down with Dorothy Noga, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, and Scott Pollock, Executive Assistant, about their new policy with regarding the designation of 14 buildings for senior citizens. This policy was approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in January 2001. This is the part 1 of the interview.

Grapevine: Please explain the senior only policy that you have recently received approval to undertake.

CMHA: A number of years ago HUD developed a designated housing policy for the elderly so that they could create elderly or senior only buildings. This came after a number of years of discussion with Congress and HUD because the sense "mixed buildings" they had didn’t work very well. And that by "senior" under HUD’s definition of elderly which is 62+, as well as for those that were disabled and handicapped, which could be of any age. This is not just Cleveland, it is housing authorities all over the country that have had issues that were created with having these mixed population buildings to designate buildings, or parts of buildings, for senior only.

Grapevine: There are 14 specific buildings that have been designated as senior only. Is that because there was a need for that many for senior only buildings?

CMHA: I think we looked at our inventory of senior buildings and kind of looked at those that were mostly senior only and then geographically what made sense and we came up with the 14 buildings. The other thing is, and this will be a common thread through the questions because it applies to a lot of them, and that is that we looked at buildings and number of units historically that we have that served the elderly, the older population.

The 14 buildings roughly works out to be half the inventory of "zero" and one bedroom units. It will be a common theme throughout most of these questions that we have housed 2000 elderly, senior only households. The idea of this is that by designating buildings it will attract seniors from other buildings that aren’t designated as such and even some from our family estates that might be interested in moving to a building but, haven’t been because there’s been a concern about mixed populations.

We’re hoping that by creating these senior only buildings that certainly we can concentrate, if that’s the right word, the elderly households we have and as well as by so doing increase the sense, maybe the demand for them once the word gets out that these truly are senior buildings.

Grapevine: So you think that there are Seniors out there that have been waiting for this and there’s just no knowledge of the "Senior" buildings?

CMHA: We think that it has been known, certainly among the senior providers, that the CHMA high rises were mixed and that for seniors, generally speaking, now there’s going to be some that feel otherwise, and those folks will have the option if they want to live somewhere else they will. But, the fact is that most seniors have said that don’t want to live in a building with younger people. Their lifestyle is different than a younger persons lifestyle and so consequently they were folks that would just ignore the CMHA option because they made a choice that wanted to live a more... a quieter lifestyle than they perceived that they would have in a building with a mixed age group.

Grapevine: These 14 buildings, do they have Senior amenities? Do they have the wider doorways for wheel chairs, lower counters, lift bars in the showers...

CMHA: Some have them, some of the units that have been modernized definitely have them.

Grapevine: and access to say the bus lines and shopping, banking, doctors etc.?

CMHA: Yes, and we work with senior services providers to also help with that.

Grapevine: So they won’t have to leave behind a neighborhood that they’re more familiar with and comfortable in?

CMHA: They won’t have to leave behind, I mean, it’s their choice, and we will eventually go out and be talking about site base waiting list so an individual can say "I want to live in senior building and I grew up in a central area building so I want to live at Cedar Extension." "I grew up in the Kamns corner area, so I want to live at Lorain Square." And if there’s not a vacancy at the time they’ll say "hmmn, I still want to live at Lorain Square because, yes, I might be able to live somewhere else soon but, I really want to stay in this neighborhood" so they have the option of staying in that neighborhood.

Grapevine: Will the policy apply to those 50 and over or will you start with those 62 and over and move to 50 and over?

CMHA: The latter. The way we’ve done it is almost by definition. HUD approves our plan and it has to be seniors, which are 62 and over. So the priority is given to those 62 and over. But we’ve stated in our plan, and HUD excepted it, in a sense what we call near elderly which is 50-61 group would also be part of these buildings. Obviously as far as people coming off the waiting list we will give priority to those who are senior only. But when we need to we will drop down to those that are near elderly.

Grapevine: I see, so you’re not going to leave these apartments vacant waiting for seniors. What kind of time frame are you going to have for an apartment to be vacant before you’ll offer it to those below 60?

CMHA: If there’s a vacancy in a building and we have no one who is 62 on the list, and I don’t think that’s ever been the case, then we would offer it to someone in the 50-61 range.

Grapevine: Do you have an idea when this policy will officially start?

CMHA: Since last month (February) I think the applications department started, basically for these buildings, started steering them to seniors.

Grapevine: Do you have a total number of seniors right now who are on the list?

CMHA: I don’t have that number right now.

Grapevine: This policy was proposed as part of the annual plan, why was there such urgency to get this program established? And do you think that the community was given enough input into the impact of this program on the entire community?

CMHA: Actually the program, or the policy has been out in the public since 1999. Because we first talked about it as part of the 2000 annual plan and at that time we requested input from the community. We didn’t implement it last year then it went back onto our plan for 2001 and we’re implementing it this year. There has been an opportunity for the community to respond, they were invited to public hearings and participated in meetings with us. [The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless] NEOCH, in fact recently asked HUD, wrote to HUD, about whether we provided appropriate time and opportunity and HUD said, "yes we did".

Grapevine: What was your score from HUD last year for vacancy rate in the public housing program?

CMHA: Actually as of 2000, HUD changed their assessment system. So we don’t have a vacancy rate in the HUD assessment system. We don’t report a vacancy rate as such.

Grapevine:: So how do you keep track of it?

CMHA: We track it but, HUD doesn’t measure us. It’s no longer one of the HUD measures for at least the management side.

Grapevine: So are you telling me that all the senior buildings are one bedroom units?

CMHA: Yes, well they’re not all one bedroom units but, most...there might be a smattering of 2 bedrooms in a couple of buildings. We don’t house what would be a 2 bedroom family in those. They’re still for the elderly, they were built in a sense in these elderly buildings to allow for care takers or allow for both partners to each have their own bedrooms. Say one of the partners has medical issues and so they sleep separately...husband and wife. No children are allowed in high rise buildings.

Grapevine: Do you find that there’s more stability among the seniors as far as financial stability?

CMHA: Well actually one of the things we noticed just recently, in the past the average income for the senior households was usually higher than that of the families. Now in the last year that’s shifting a little bit. I think that’s because the average income for our families was so low that now more of them are working they’ve now exceeded the seniors. Which just gradually increased basically with the recent increase in social security.

Although the average income of seniors is more stable which is why we want to continue to house them and why everyone else wants them instead of families. It’s not a walk in the park. They (seniors) have their set of problems but, certainly they’re more definable generally and their providers certainly there’s more than enough providers that are able to accommodate them.

One thing that is certainly more efficient for us is if we have 2 high rises, one is designated for seniors, one is designated for everyone else. Versus having 2 high rises with mixed age groups, we can much more efficiently and effectively work with senior providers to provide senior services at one location rather than 2 locations. Similarly, if we can provide services that appeal to younger folks at the one location that would be a younger building. So from a customer service standpoint it makes a lot of sense.

Grapevine: CMHA has received poor scores regarding vacancy rate from HUD, don’t you think that this senior only program will exacerbate this problem? You have designated most of the buildings in your inventory with large vacancies as senior only. How will you fill these vacancies?

CMHA: We don’t think it’s going to be a problem. We think actually it will help.

Grapevine:Because by moving seniors into the senior buildings it will free up spaces in the other building?

CMHA: Well back to something that we’ve already said we believe that by identifying a building as designated as seniors so that everyone in the building will be 50 years old and over it becomes more attractive for seniors and so more seniors will be interested in moving into CMHA senior buildings than perhaps they have been in the past when they were moving into a mixed building. That’s why we don’t think it will exacerbate the problem at all.

Grapevine: OK, what if you end up with buildings that don’t have a lot of seniors or only a handful of people over 50, what will you do then?

CMHA: Well one of the things we should have said up front, no one that’s living on a CMHA property will have to move. So we’re not saying that this building or that building is designated as seniors so if you’re under 50 you have to move out. Absolutely not! All right? We will certainly work with our current residents and if they’re perfectly happy where they are whether they’re seniors in a mixed all age building or if they’re a younger resident in a senior building. If they’re happy there they won’t be required to move. If they would prefer to move they’ll go. If somebody is 30 or 40 and they don’t want to be living with a bunch of old people we will work with them for a transfer as long as they’re in good standing as a resident.

Grapevine: So how does this work, is there a yearly lease they have to apply for these apartments. If their income level changes do they not qualify for the housing anymore?

CMHA: No, basically we have these 14 buildings that we’ve designated and we have all ages everywhere else. At this point we will go through a process where we’ll notify the other seniors that these are now senior only buildings and hopefully generate some interest however, there’s no requirement for them to move unless it’s something that they’re looking for. On the other hand if there’s non seniors in these buildings they won’t be asked to move.

When we said we had implemented this already, basically we’re going down the waiting list and identifying everyone 62 and older and giving them the opportunity to move into the senior buildings first and then the 50-61 will have the opportunity once we’ve exhausted the number over 62. But nobody who’s currently housed will have to move, as long as they pay their rent.

It would not be considered a year to year lease, what our residents do is they sign a lease and every year we re-certify them in other words we do a double check to find out what their income is. Because a resident’s rent is based upon their income we might adjust a rent level up or down. But, it would never be the basis for moving somebody. We’ve always been very conscientious about giving residents choice and avoiding any relocation wherever possible. We have no interest in shuffling people around unless it’s their interest, not us trying to impose something on them.

Grapevine: So have all the residents have been notified or made aware of the changes or are they in the process of being notified of the senior only buildings?

CMHA: No, actually all that we’ve done at this point is started to go through the waiting list we haven’t made any general notices yet, we will be shortly. But, one thing we know the moving process and leasing process takes some time. So we’ll notify all residents several times because it is related to the cycles waiting list option that we’ll be putting into affect, we’ll also notify the public.

Grapevine: So you don’t know when this new policy will start but, "soon?"

CMHA: You know I can’t tell you exactly when, we want to make sure operationally that we’re ready to respond to any internal questions that we get, to figure out the procedures, make sure everything is well planned out so that folks who request a transfer don’t feel as if we’re not responding to them. We want to make sure we’re doing it right. So we just don’t have an actual date when this will start.

Grapevine: Considering that only 10% of your waiting list is made up of those 50 and over, how do you expect to fill these large vacancies?

CMHA: For most of these buildings there aren’t that many vacancies. RiverView basically accounts for most of the vacancies. For the other buildings we’ve looked at the move out rate over time that we experience it looks like we can expect about 300 year. But the size of the waiting list is sufficient to cover that. We’re expecting and designated the 14 figuring we would be able to fill them.

Grapevine: So what you’re saying is you expect to get more seniors than those 10% that are on the waiting list?

CMHA: Oh yes, over time yeah. You could always say that that number stays 10% just because there’s always going to be a waiting list and new people coming onto the waiting list. Even though we’re shuffling and able to move them into our units. Given that we can expect 300 units a year to turn over that we would have to replace, we think that size waiting list is adequate.

Grapevine: Where do you recommend that the large and growing number of homeless and disabled people should look for housing since you are closing off one fifth of your total inventory for seniors only?

CMHA: Well it’s not really closing it off because historically about 20% of our residents were senior households...it’s probably higher. We traditionally house about 2000 senior households so I don’t understand the idea that we’re closing them off? There’s still a large portion of the inventory available to those who’s age falls below the senior level.

Grapevine Issue 48 will have part 2 of this interview. Along with additional comments from the City of Cleveland and others in the community.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #47 -2001