Stunned by Clinton administration plans to slash housing grants for low-income senior citizens, Jewish activists are predicting devastating effects on America’s aging population.
“Through the government’s hand, more elderly will be added to the ranks of the homeless,” said Joanne Hoffman, director of housing for the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York.
“The demand is so dramatic and the need so great it is irresponsible for the government to dismantle this program,” Hoffman said.
In a pre-emptive strike to save the embattled department of Housing and Urban Development, budget cutters in the administration have proposed a drastic overhaul of the agency.
The proposal would eliminate funding for dozens of programs, including those that finance the construction of low-income housing for the elderly and others that provide support services at such facilities.
The White House estimates that the proposed restructuring would save $800 million over the next five years.
Activists say that the administration’s mover could not come at a worse time for American’s elderly population – both Jewish and non-Jewish – which continues to grow at a record pace.
Included in the ballooning growth are senior American Jews who increasingly are turning toward low-income housing, according to Hoffman, whose federation runs nearly 3,000 units, making it one of the largest sponsors of low-income housing for seniors in New York City.
Though Jewish professional in the field do not have specific figures, they estimate that through local federations, B’nai B’rith and independent associations, the Jewish community provides housing to thousands of low-income seniors.
Those facilities serve both Jews and non-Jews, in accordance with fair-housing laws. The same laws that prohibit exclusion of non-Jews from Jewish-run facilities also bar these facilities from recording the number of Jewish residents.
B’nai B’rith, the international service and fraternal organization, runs 27 homes across the country housing more than 5,000 low-income seniors.
Other low-income housing facilities under Jewish auspices – including those sponsored by federations and independent associations – other bout 15,000 apartment units, according to Ellen Feingold, public policy chairwoman of the North American Association of Jewish Homes and Housing for the Aging, which is a membership and advocacy organization for these Jewish-sponsored facilities.
The need for low-income housing for seniors has swelled to an all-time high across the nation with an estimated eight people waiting for each available unit, according to recent studies.
For fiscal year 1995, HUD, under Section 202 low-income housing for the elderly, has slated $1.279 billion for new construction, according to a HUD document.
Under the Congregant Housing Services Program another $25 million is allocated for supplemental services.
B’nai B’rith has seven new constructions projects tin the development stage, according to officials of the organization. These projects, which have already begun the application process, may or may not secure funding under the 1995 budget. In any case, future projects are certainly in jeopardy, officials said.
The same is true for Jewish federation-sponsored housing, which is always looking to provide more units, federation officials said.
That Jewish seniors require such housing dispels the myth that most of the elderly in the community do not have such needs.
“There is as perception that the elderly American Jew is middle class, and that’s simply not true,” Hoffman said.
The problem for poor elderly Jews is “a problems the Jewish community is only beginning to face,” said Mark Meridy, B’nai B’rith’s senior housing specialist.
“Certainly this is going to gain prominence as people continue to live longer and the need for housing increase.” he said.
The proposed HUD budget caught Jewish activists across the country off guard.
“We were surprised to see this on the cutting block,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations.
Since the election in November, Jewish activists working on the domestic front have concentrated their efforts on tracking congressional Republican proposals on welfare, balanced-budget amendments and school prayer.
They did not, they said, expect threats to come from the White House.
Under the administration proposal, 60 HUD programs would be combined into three mega-block grants for local communities.
Although low-income elderly housing providers could compete for diminished funds, Jewish professionals hold little hope that their programs would receive nearly as much funding as they do now, especially when competing against disabled housing, public housing, and emergency housing.
In addition, under the proposal, beginning in 1998, elderly housing facilities will be competing for the same funds with homeless programs and housing for people with AIDS.
Calling the proposal “the final blow” to the “dismantling of public housing,” Hoffman said, “We will have no place to send the low-income elderly. This is really a crisis.”
Without low income housing as an option, citizens will be forced into nursing homes without the “dignity and independence we provide,” she said.
At a news conference on Monday, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros argued that the restructuring will actually benefit low-income elderly housing because the grant application process will shift from private organizations such as federations and B’nai B’rith to local and state authorities.
The private organizations would then be able to apply to the state and local authorities, which, according to Cisneros, can set aside funds for specific purposes.
But some Jewish activists are not buying his pitch.
When asked whether she was reassured by Cisneros’ assessment that funding would still be forthcoming, Feingold said, “I am confident of nothing.”
While eliminating funds for new construction poses a long-term threat to the elderly population, plans to eliminate grants for support services that some building receive pose a more immediate problem.
Thanks to a HUD grand, for instance, over 500 low-income senior citizens living in B’nai B’rith’s Covenant House in St. Louis currently eat hot meals seven nights a week instead of the five funded by private donations, according to Judy, Lee, executive director of Covenant House.
The $487,000 grant over five years also allows the Covenant House to provide transportation for its residents to doctors’ offices.
“I just don’t know what they would do without this assistance,” Lee said.
Lee added that Low-income housing “is important not only to the older members but to the families who are trying to do their best. The ripple effect would be dramatic.”
With all activists clearly concerned, Aviv of CJF tried to find the silver lining in an otherwise bleak future for low-income housing programs.
“We have to study very carefully what the rolling of 60 programs” into three would mean, Aviv said, pondering whether the changes “will mean a diminution of funds or a better process.”
In the meantime, CJF will join B’nai B’rith and Christian non-profit groups in fighting to keep the grant program intact.
Officials from Jewish and no-Jewish organizations the would be affected by changes at HUD met with HUD officials Monday night to air their concerns.
Since Clinton will not deliver his budget to Capitol Hill for months, activists plan to use the time to lobby the White House and prepare an all-out push on the Hill.
“This is a significant battle that we are going to fight both in Congress and the White House,” said B’nai B’rith’s Meridy.