Senior housing advocates consider ‘preservation’ of existing residences in urban core

Federally subsidized housing programs specifically designed for seniors with low incomes began in 1959 with the Section 202 program. The Section 8 rental assistance program, with 15 to 40 year project based Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) contracts followed in 1974 and was responsible for the construction of most of the privately owned, subsidized housing presently available for low-income seniors in the United States. The elimination of this program has led to a decline in the housing built specifically for seniors from 40 percent of the units in low income housing with project based rent subsidies to 13 percent (AARP Public Policy Institute). It is projected that within 10 years, all of the original project-based Section 8 HAP contracts will have expired. If Section 8 contracts are not renewed, the ongoing rental assistance it provides is lost for both current and future low-income seniors. For those who are likely disabled or have multiple chronic health conditions, the impact of relocation can be devastating. Consequences can be a decline in physical and mental health, homeless, and even death. Given the aging of the population, it is imperative that a strategy be developed to preserve housing for low-income seniors.

Senior Housing Preservation – Detroit, a coalition that has arisen out of the eviction of 115 seniors from the Griswold Building in downtown Detroit, has developed an issue brief on “Preserving Housing for Low Income Seniors.” The document provides background on the issue, an analysis of the threat to low income senior housing, and options for preservation, a strategy which has worked in other urban areas of the country.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), there are approximately 1.2 million project-based rent subsidized units nationally. When the original Section 8 HAP contracts for these units expire, owners are allowed to renew for terms of one to five years, or not to renew. It’s projected that within 10 years, all of the original project-based Section 8 HAP contracts will have expired. This means hundreds of thousands of low income seniors will be evicted and possibly homeless.

Senior Housing Preservation – Detroit is primarily focused on identifying properties at risk, developing early response to engaging owners, and assisting residents in transition. However, it is concerned with educating opinion leaders on not only the issues of preserving housing for low income seniors, but the principle of inclusion of low income seniors in the lifeblood of the emerging Detroit.

One of the strategies adopted by the coalition is housing preservation – the strategic effort to preserve existing buildings that house seniors and may convert to market-rate housing. According to NLIHC, preserving the existing building is approximately 40 percent less costly than constructing a new one. Housing preservation breaks down into three categories:

  1. Sale of the building to a new owner, likely a nonprofit, who agrees to retain it as housing for low income seniors.
  2. Retention of some of the units covered by the project-based Section 8 HAP and transferring the remainder to one or more newly constructed or substantially rehabilitated buildings.
  3. Transfer the entire project-based Section 8 HAP contract and corresponding rent subsidies for all of the units to a newly constructed or substantially rehabilitated building.

The strategy employed by Senior Housing Preservation – Detroit follows these tactical points:

  • Develop a coalition
  • Identify and analyze the problem
  • Communicate the problem
  • Organize seniors and others impacted by the situation

Tim Wintermute, executive director of the Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation, has written an comprehensive issue brief on this topic. For a copy of the document, contact him at