By Barney Blakeney
Just seven months ago, residents of Grand Oaks Apartments West Ashley, developed as housing for low to moderate income residents, raised concerns their rents would be increased as the complex moved from that status closer to market rate rental costs. That meant single residents would have to earn more than $40,000 annually to continue living at the complex. Cynthia Gerideau-Richardson, a six-year resident at the apartments, led residents who were challenging the new demand. She said the challenge was not unique to Grand Oaks residents. Others didn’t listen. Last month residents at Rutledge Place Apartments on the Charleston peninsula sought help to address the same issue.
The issue of low income affordable senior housing is an emerging crisis that cannot be answered by separate responses after individuals or groups of individuals become affected. In an August interview, Gerideaux-Richardson said many of her neighbors felt betrayed. The apartments, developed as housing for low to moderate income residents, were financed using federal funding with the stipulation the property would serve that constituency at least 30 years. But a loophole allows the owners to increase rental costs after 15 years. As other complexes such as Rutledge Palace Apartments developed for seniors reach that maturity, many also will face a similar dilemma, she predicted.
Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a former Department of Housing and Urban Development executive, said that scenario for low income seniors living in housing designated for them is looming across the country. He said residents should arm themselves with accurate information. Beyond looking for alternative housing resources, they should learn what their rights are and use the power of residents associations to influence policy and practice. Developers and property owners know what courses they will take, but residents collectively can influence their decisions, he said. Residents’ strength, especially as voters, is in tenant associations, he said.
Charleston Housing Authority General Counsel Melissa Maddox Evans said the issue of providing low income affordable housing to senior citizens definitely is a challenge. Unless requirements are stipulated, housing costs are subject to the whim of developers, she said. That means specific requirements must be built into development contracts. Largely that depends on elected officials who set policy. And that’s been problematic, she said.
Housing authority Executive Director Don Cameron said as the senior population grows, their need for housing also will grow. As long as the financial incentive remains a priority, the need for long term public stewardship of sustainable low income affordable requires a long term strategy.