As Marge Glaser counts down the days until a rent spike in January will force her out of the Astoria apartment that has been her home for the past 25 years, there are things she could do.
But with a Social Security income of less than $800 month, her options are limited. The 74-year-old doesn’t drive. She walks everywhere. There are things she doesn’t want to give up, like her dog, Dorothy, and things she cannot give up. She isn’t homeless. Not yet. But she’s worried she’s teetering on the edge — and she is not alone.
The cost of housing continues to go up on the coast while the competition for lower-priced apartments is fierce. Glaser has applied for low-income housing, yet the wait list is years-long.
Helping Hands Re-entry Outreach Center reports an 18 percent increase in seniors it has served across the coastal region in the last year. They are people who, because of sudden illness, the death of a spouse or partner, or medical bills and rent increases, have fallen through the safety net.
Social services geared at getting people back on their feet face a different set of challenges when it comes to helping the elderly. In theory, a 23-year-old who is homeless because of drug addiction can clean up, enter treatment, go to therapy, find a job and rebuild. For the elderly, it’s a different conversation. Seniors who can no longer enter the workforce, who survive on fixed incomes, may never be able to reclaim the stability they once enjoyed. Their health concerns are more likely to worsen rather than improve with time.
They are people who have “no rainbow at the end of the storm,” Alan Evans, the Helping Hands director, said.
Lack of housing has been a frequent debate at Astoria City Council meetings and work sessions, and during Planning Commission discussions of new development projects over the past few years. City staff are investigating ways to incentivize the building of lower-priced and affordable housing.
Often the conversation revolves around workforce housing, a term that does not have a strict definition. When city councilors talk about workforce housing, they are talking about housing a bartender, barista, server or landscaper — the average worker — can afford.
Such housing is greatly needed, City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill has emphasized, pointing to the employees at the Astoria Co-op where she works and the Fort George Brewery her husband, Chris Nemlowill, co-owns. Councilors worry short-term rentals and Airbnb-type vacation rental arrangements take houses and apartments away from potential long-term renters.
Mayor Arline LaMear, however, has pointed to some instances where the ability to rent out a room on a short-term basis has allowed retirees to continue to live in historic homes that can be costly to maintain.
The waiting list for low-income, Section 8 housing was between three- and- four-years long in Clatsop County, but has since been closed to everyone except the elderly, disabled and homeless for now. The North West Oregon Housing Authority board made the decision “out of a desire to serve the most vulnerable populations out there,” said Todd Johnston, the executive director.
But federal funding is on shaky ground. Instead of issuing new vouchers for the federal Housing and Urban Development affordable housing programs as people qualify, local groups say they are being advised to only fill openings created when people move out of HUD housing or leave the program entirely.
Limiting the waiting list doesn’t mean more apartments are suddenly available, though. Some people who recently moved into the Owens-Adair Apartments in Astoria, a building restricted to low-income seniors, said they were told the waiting list was nearly two years long. Some of them got in earlier than expected as residents moved away or died, but Glaser — who lives in an apartment on Harrison Avenue — doesn’t feel like she can afford to wait.
“I don’t know if they can bump somebody to get me in, but I’m worried about getting in before the rent goes up,” she said.
Some friends have offered her rooms in their own homes, but those are only temporary options. Some are located far from downtown.
“I don’t want to depend on the bus,” Glaser said. “And,” she added, “how far would I have to walk to catch the bus?”
At this point, few of her options are appealing. She could find a roommate. She could set aside money for taxis and buses and prepare to move to a temporary home beyond easy walking distance from downtown. She could get rid of her dog. She could cut back what she spends on food. She could use less water and less electricity. She could move out of the city, maybe live with her daughter. She could stay put and try to swallow a rent increase that would leave her with exactly $37 of her Social Security check each month, the only income she receives.
‘Stuck where they’re at’
Every Tuesday, up to a dozen members of the Astoria Senior Center board the center’s bus and go shopping at Fred Meyer. Every Friday, they have the option to go to Safeway. Once a month, the bus travels to Longview, Washington, to hit Walmart and lunch at Izzy’s. The trips are open to anybody who is a member of the senior center but are usually taken by seniors who don’t have cars or who no longer drive. Many are people who live at the Owens-Adair Apartments up the road or in the immediate two- or- three-block radius around the center.
“The challenges are basically there’s no affordable housing and most of them have limited transportation,” said Larry Miller, the senior center’s director.
Fifty-two units across three apartment complexes in Warrenton form more than half the affordable housing available in that city. In the same neighborhood as one of the complexes, market price rental rates for two-bedroom apartments are $1,200.
Local organizations offer several forms of assistance, including loans for people who may be able to afford a higher monthly rent but, because of a fixed income, would have a harder time moving to a new place because they can’t bring in the extra money for move-in costs like a security deposit or first and last month’s rent.
“Generally the rents here are a little bit higher than they would be in more rural areas because of the tourism and the second homes we have here,” Johnston said. “The rents compared to the wages here, there’s a big gap there. Even folks who do work have trouble affording the rents here … People who work or have other means can find other ways to make do, but (seniors on fixed incomes) are kind of stuck where they’re at.”
Threat of poverty
Astoria can be a difficult place to get old. Major grocery stores are located on the outskirts, with Safeway on the eastern edge of the city and Fred Meyer across the New Youngs Bay Bridge in Warrenton. Taxis can be used as a more flexible mode of transportation, but cost slightly more than the bus. For some elderly people, it has made sense to try to stick as close to downtown as possible and walk.
According to data collected in the 2010 U.S. Census, people 65 years and over represented 17 percent of Astoria’s population, while people considered to live in poverty made up just under 20 percent.
The National Council on Aging estimates that more than 25 million Americans aged 60 years and over live at or below the federal poverty level. Twenty-one percent of Social Security recipients aged 65 years old or over who are married and 43 percent of those who are single depend on Social Security for the bulk of their income.
On the rise
New data released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this week showed homelessness was up slightly across the nation for the first time since 2010. The numbers were driven in part by shortages of affordable housing on the West Coast.
The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are weighing steep cuts to affordable housing programs and housing assistance vouchers for low-income, elderly and disabled people. Advocates for low-income housing also worry a Republican tax plan in the works could worsen the problem, taking away incentives for developers to build new affordable housing.
Elaine Bruce, executive director of Clatsop Community Action, isn’t necessarily seeing more elderly people coming through the door locally, but she does see a landscape that is particularly difficult for anyone who might be on the edge right now.
People who are one bad day away from being homeless, she said.