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Affordable housing poses challenge for today's seniors

You’ve heard of “High School Confidential” and “L.A. Confidential” and maybe even a funny film parody of art school called “Art School Confidential,” but have you heard of Senior Housing Confidential? No? Are you curious about the underside, the hush-hush, the you-didn’t-hear-it-from-me side of housing for the over-55 crowd?

My husband and I retired a couple of years ago with limited means. We have enough to live on and for emergencies, but that’s about it. After a lifetime of work and travel, we’re just as happy now with what we can afford and enjoy — a good home-cooked meal that adheres to all our dietary restrictions, a good (often old) movie on television and a nice walk in a nearby park with our dog. Those things don’t cost much. What does cost a lot is rent. It’s ridiculous.

Is it really fair or wise for a city like Portland, or for Oregon cities in general, to have almost no tenant protection laws whatsoever? Many communities with natural advantages, mild climates and many attractions have long ago taken the step of protecting renters from the influx of wealthy snow- or sun-birds (or Voodoo-doughnut-birds), who drive up rents but contribute little to the human resources of an area. Santa Monica, Calif., for example, could not be cuter or balmier or filled with cache and savoir faire, but it put in rent control decades ago, and even in today’s greedy world has a balance of landlord and tenant protections so that everyone ordinary isn’t priced out of the market while a few oligarchs use St. Monica’s fair city as an occasional flyby roost. They decided they valued community over letting developers and landlords make out like bandits.

Now this new wrinkle, Airbnb, is a nightmare whose costs will only truly be counted years from now after its first serial killer scandal, and when it goes belly up from the publicity and the lawsuits, leaving cities bereft of stable renters and people who actually want to contribute to long-term growth. Even a small earthquake or other disasters (oil trains, anyone?) can turn a once thriving city into a wasteland. I saw with my own eyes how Denver boomed in the ‘80s and then cratered out in the ‘90s. It’s not a good situation for senior citizens, young people or families.

Those seniors who live in market-rate housing have the prospect of seeing their rents go up and up, while their social security and investments certainly won’t, or not at anything like a corresponding rate. Those who opt for affordable housing (a category designated by the government to be some formula of below-market depending on the renter’s income) find they have few options, and most of them are bad. Also, many seniors don’t have the budget to move over and over again just ahead of the rent-hike tsunami.

Where do cities and towns think our older citizens are going to live? The affordable housing in most places is laughably inadequate. Developers don’t see profit in housing seniors and often put a few affordable units in a complex just to get federal subsidies.

After six years of researching senior housing around the west (sorry, I never looked east of the Continental Divide because I just don’t feel comfortable with those “Easterners”), I discovered that all affordable senior housing I looked at — and I looked at plenty — was located right next to toxic substances and/or a source of horrendous noise pollution or was run by some kind of unofficial syndicate that only ‘granted’ apartments to those who bribed or had friends in the office. (Yes, you heard it here, off the record and very hush-hush —but, yeah, it happens.) We looked at a building in Pacifica, south of San Francisco that was directly across a busy highway from the beach. It turned out that Pacifica as a whole was already drug-ridden and foggy 99 percent of the time, and is now sliding into the sea. Not really a good deal.

Or would you like to live next to a six-lane freeway belching smoke and sounding like several 747s taking off? If so, live at the lovely senior housing in Hercules, Calif. Or would you prefer to live in Southeast Portland within a hundred yards of the Union Pacific’s busiest route, a four-lane, 45 mph zone of East 99 and the screaming, shrieking brakes of the new MAX Orange line — all of which combined have much the same acoustic and pulmonary effects as the lovely accommodations of Hercules? Or do you want Door No. 3 in Mesa, Ariz., where you can get a two-bedroom apartment for under $800, but the temperature hovers around 110 degrees Fahrenheit for eight months of the year?

The rents on all these paradisiacal hideaways are rising, of course. The noise-tunnel apartments in southeast Portland referred to are pushing their rents up and up every year, just as they are legally allowed. They will find people desperate enough to pay them, I’m sure. It’s a shame because older people don’t need to be faced with polluted, dangerous living conditions on top of the other challenges of aging.

I guarantee you that most developed countries with healthy democracies don’t provide this kind of shell-game housing for their elderly populations. Their legislators must be thinking along the lines of “What would I like to happen to me when I’m old and maybe haven’t become a gazillionaire?” But perhaps Americans can’t think that way — it would be a violation of our “can-do optimism” that mandates that somehow, against all the odds, we are all going to end up on the top of the heap.

Confidentially, it’s a scandal.

Valerie Ilustre is a member of Jottings at Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.