Heather Huot

On a spring day in May 2017, a long line of senior citizens waited for an application to our newly constructed 52-unit affordable senior housing community, St. John Neumann Place II in South Philadelphia. One applicant, an individual with a significant mobility impairment, walked hours to the site in the pouring rain with the aid of a walker, wanting so desperately to gain his spot in the new complex. Arriving soaked to bone, the man was searching for a sense of hope and well-being.

This story is not unique. Across the country, with a rapidly aging population, the need for affordable and accessible housing is prevalent and seniors are going to extreme lengths to try and secure this necessity— a concern Catholic Housing and Community Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (CHCS) is keenly aware of.

This month CHCS broke ground on St. Rita Place, which will transform a vacant lot on South Broad and Ellsworth Streets into a mixed-use building providing 46 one-bedroom apartments to income-eligible older adults ages 62 and over. With this groundbreaking, CHCS continues on the path of providing help and creating hope within our communities.

While this is a wonderful celebration and milestone for CHCS, it is also a reminder of the poignant need for affordable senior housing. We’ve received over 100 calls from potential applicants for St. Rita Place, which as I write this, is still a vacant lot. Those potential applicants will grow exponentially as the building takes shape.

Throughout my years of working with CHCS, I have personally witnessed how people’s lives are transformed by affordable housing. I remember accompanying a new resident to her apartment and opening the front door. The woman collapsed to her knees praying in thanksgiving through tears. She was so overwhelmed with gratitude to have received a spot in the building.

What a deeply humbling experience to be able to provide the means for someone to live with dignity and the highest quality of life. However, I am also acutely mindful of all the older adults that we aren’t able to give a home, who sit on our wait lists for years.

During these unprecedented times, when many are attuned to the health and safety needs of this vulnerable population, let us all commit ourselves to having a broader conversation to ensure that older adults have an increased access to the affordable housing they need to enjoy high-quality, independent and financially secure lives. Let us make a concerted effort and consider how we can work together to meet this growing demand.

We need to advocate for increased funding for housing development programs like HUD’s Section 202 funding and Pennsylvania’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. These funding streams are very competitive and scarce, causing significant delays in the development of senior housing. One development can take anywhere from five to 10 years to secure the funding and begin development. This is too long when seniors are waiting years for an affordable housing spot to open.

In a time of uncertainty, not only during a pandemic but with a looming affordable senior housing crisis, let us heed the words of Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez: “We will navigate the difficult waters of this challenge as a united human family, for after all is said and done, we are people of hope!”

***

Heather Huot, MSW, LSW, is the Director of Catholic Housing and Community Services for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.