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More seniors face housing uncertainty, agencies find

An AARP study found that more than 3 million Americans 50 and older risk losing their homes


by: MERRY MACKINNON - Volunteer Carol Beauclerk and Elders In Actions Briana Winterborn share a moment at the nonprofit agency, where free volunteer personal advocates are available to seniors who need support while dealing with a landlord, bank, tenant or other issue.Two Portland nonprofit groups serving older adults report an increase in seniors seeking help because they no longer can afford to stay in their homes.

"The image is that older adults have secure housing, but that's really not the case," said Elders In Action's Briana Winterborn.

What staff at Elders In Action and Northwest Pilot Project are seeing is a local problem that a nationwide AARP study on older Americans and the mortgage crisis recently spotlighted.

Titled "Nightmare on Main Street," the AARP study found that more than 3 million Americans age 50 and older risk losing their homes. It also uncovered a troubling increase in mortgage delinquency rates for homeowners 75 and older. "From 2007 to 2011, more than 1.5 million older Americans lost their homes as a result of the mortgage crisis," said the study, published on AARP's website at www.aarp.org.

In Portland, Northwest Pilot Project — which helps find affordable housing for low-income and disabled 55-and-older adults at risk of homelessness — had 1,636 clients in its last fiscal year. Due to resource constraints, the nonprofit turned away 582 people. Of the number it was able to serve, 667 were women. Many had never before asked for help from a social service agency.

"We've seen a huge shift in people seeking our services," said Rebecca Childs, Northwest Pilot Project's housing program manager. "They had worked, paid all their bills and were fairly comfortable. Suddenly they're low-income, and we see a lot of people in shock."

Childs estimated about 15 percent of those first-time clients are in foreclosure. "It's not that they have an outrageous mortgage payment," Childs said, adding that most had lived in their houses for a long time. "But they had some sort of life transition — illness, divorce, lost work. And they're at the end of their unemployment benefits and are having trouble finding work."

Also stressful for older homeowners on low fixed-incomes are property taxes, said David Raphael, co-founder of the Alliance Of Vulnerable Homeowners. The alliance enrolls homeowners who, after eligibility rules were changed in 2011, no longer were allowed in Oregon's Senior and Disabled Property Tax Deferral Program. "The real market value of their houses is declining, and yet their property taxes are rising by a minimum of 3 percent a year," Raphael said.

Not only foreclosures, but the diminishing availability of affordable rental housing is creating hardship for low-income seniors. Hand in hand with rising property taxes is rising rent, driven also by strong local demand.

Childs described the case of one local woman who, with Social Security benefits and employment income, reliably paid rent on the apartment where she lived for 16 years — until she lost her job. "The rent kept increasing, but not her Social Security," Childs said. "But she had employment income. And when she lost that income she was priced out of her apartment."

Of the 2,400 calls for assistance Elders In Action received last year, 1,300 were about housing, with many callers worried about paying rents. Through a cadre of volunteers, the nonprofit group helps adults with disabilities and seniors 60 and older get access to community resources.

"Rents in Portland have gone up incredibly," said Winterborn, personal advocacy program specialist for Elders in Action. A recent OPB news report noted that the average rent for an apartment in Portland is now $800 a month.

Elders In Action referred some clients to Northwest Pilot Project and helped about 10 others who were in foreclosure. "They're not sure what to do," Winterborn said, adding that one client in foreclosure was 72 years old.

If they contact Elders In Action early enough in the process, people struggling with foreclosure can get step-by-step information. If they call later, the group can offer them a personal volunteer advocate.

"Most are living on Social Security," Winterborn said. "And they get into a situation where there just isn't enough income."

Find help

• For informaton on Elders In Action, go to www.eldersinaction.org or call 503-235-5474.

• For informaton on Northwest Pilot Project go to www.nwpilotproject.org or call 503-227-5605.