The struggle to maintain safe and affordable housing dims the luster of the golden years for many older Americans.
It’s a struggle that “affects seniors’ ability to remain independent and enjoy a high quality of life,” says Janet Hunko, director of the University of Michigan Health System’s Housing Bureau for Seniors (HBS) in Ann Arbor.
“If you don’t have a roof over your head and security, maintaining your physical health and well-being becomes so much harder,” she says.
Since 1983, HBS has collaborated with a range of community groups and public agencies to help ward off evictions and homelessness and provide appropriate and affordable living arrangements for thousands of elderly residents in Ann Arbor and surrounding Washtenaw County.
One way HBS helps older residents afford to continue living at home is through its Home Share program that matches them with another person – someone usually much younger – who is looking for a place to live. Homeowners must be at least 55 to participate, though most are in their 70s. They open their homes to “seekers” – they are often students since Ann Arbor is a college town – who pay a reduced rent in exchange for basic household services such as taking out the trash, bringing in the mail, or shoveling snow.
“The kids are gone or they are widowers and the arrangement gives the homeowners more independence than other senior living arrangements,” says program coordinator Kim McKitrick-Thompson. She says it’s a “common-sense solution” that helps elderly homeowners make ends meet while also satisfying their need for companionship, the security of having someone else around the house and a helping hand with the chores.
Matches generally last about 16 months – although the longest went on for nearly 15 years. “It’s provided some very rewarding partnerships,” McKitrick-Thompson says.
The program provides housing for 100 people a year in Washtenaw County. It receives about 200 Home Share inquiries and about 125 applications a year. HBS staff explore potential matches through a screening process that includes visits to the homeowner’s residence, interviews with seekers and meetings between the two parties.
“We see if there is chemistry between the two and if they want to go forward,” McKitrick-Thompson says. Contracts for home sharing can outline both financial and chore responsibilities.
HBS’ Home Share program is one of about 90 such programs operating across the country, according to the National Shared Housing Resource Center.
Elderly eviction prevention. Preventing homelessness among seniors who live in rental properties is the main goal of HBS’ elderly eviction prevention program. Hunko says physical frailties, memory disorders and mental illnesses can contribute to elderly renters forgetting to pay their bills, their ability to maintain clean and sanitary apartments and other difficulties that violate a lease agreement and could make eviction imminent.
HBS helps by, among other activities, identifying and resolving problems with senior tenants before eviction is threatened or providing relocation to appropriate housing, if needed; maintaining positive relationships with area landlords and property managers so they are sensitive to senior housing issues; and working with a network of public and private agencies to find solutions to elderly tenants’ issues.
Foreclosure prevention. In cooperation with the City of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and other organizations, HBS works closely with county treasurer to help seniors avoid losing their homes to foreclosure. In fiscal year 2016, HBS helped prevent 50 tax foreclosures.
It also partners with the AARP to host free tax assistance programs throughout the tax season. And HBS volunteers help seniors prepare their federal and state income taxes, as well as screen participants for eligibility for tax credits, property tax deferments and property tax hardship applications.
“We’ll even help [seniors] figure out their budget and help them manage month to month to make sure they can afford to stay in an affordable living situation,” Hunko says.
Hunko says her biggest reward is “seeing the satisfaction on someone’s face and knowing that we were able to help them feel a little bit more secure. Your golden years are a time for enjoying life, enjoying your grandkids, enjoying your home. We try to help them do that without some of the added worries that come with aging.”