Why eviction hits older adults harder, making them vulnerable to homelessness

Collaborator: Streetlight
Published: 11/10/2021, 6:33 PM

Written By: Carly Stern and Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) Oliver had lived in his two-bedroom San Francisco apartment for nearly 30 years when his back gave out during the fall of 2019. He was diagnosed with spinal arthritis, and it became too painful for the self-employed carpenter to continue working on projects around California’s Bay Area. 

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As Oliver’s income dried up, he began to fall behind on rent. 

Oliver, who is now 65 and who BigIfTrue.org is identifying by first name only to protect his privacy, said he didn’t want to tell people about his financial situation. As four months of bills piled up, he was running out of time.

At $1,000 per month, he was paying far below the average price tag of about $4,400 for a two-bedroom place in San Francisco. If Oliver was evicted from the rent-controlled apartment he’d called home since 1989, he didn’t have a Plan B.

“If I lost my place, I had nowhere else to go and I’m too old to be homeless,” Oliver said.

For Oliver and many older adults like him, starting over somewhere new when housing issues arise is far from simple.

Older adults are uniquely vulnerable to eviction and the damages it causes, housing advocates and homeless service providers said. The financial costs, health consequences and cascading psychological effects of an eviction are more severe for older adults. 

Since the pandemic, older adults have struggled to find new housing after an eviction, and homeless service providers in some communities have seen more people 65 and older who are unsheltered and living outdoors.

And places that allow rent control can negatively affect long-time, older renters, who pay far less than their newer neighbors. Housing advocates say certain rent control laws encourage landlords to evict these older tenants to put their unit on the market at a higher rate.

In a US Census Bureau survey from early October, about 30% of adults 65 and older said it was very or somewhat likely that they would be evicted in the next two months.

Why older adults are more vulnerable after housing loss than other age groups

A growing body of research links evictions to increased stress, risk of depression, disruptions to health care and other health issues. Younger people are more physically and emotionally flexible, making them more capable of coping with the trauma of an eviction than older adults, housing lawyers said.

“We have people who have been in place for years, decades,” said Thomas E. Drohan, director of litigation at Legal Assistance to the Elderly in San Francisco. “Their entire community is here, and their doctors are here. Their networks of caregivers are here. For them to lose housing at an advanced age is much more devastating.”

For older adults who are evicted, moving itself can be a huge undertaking. Aging adults may have collected a lifetime’s worth of things but be physically unable to move, said Dan Hyman, a staff attorney in the tenant rights unit for the SeniorLAW Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“People are often stuck relying on friends or family or paying for movers, which can get very, very expensive, very quickly,” he said. “So many times, seniors sort of get stuck in a place, and because they are vulnerable on many levels, many landlords take advantage of them, refuse to make repairs. They threaten them. There’s vulnerability there that is ripe for exploitation.”

[ Read more of our eviction coverage here. ]

Older renters are more likely to be rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. To prioritize paying their rent, older adults on fixed incomes may be unable to cover other necessities, like health care, food or their utilities.

An unexpected financial emergency could leave low-income older adults at risk of eviction. Aging people in Oklahoma have dealt with extreme weather and extended power outages since last year, which forced them to make difficult decisions about how to spend limited resources, said Meghan Mueller, associate executive director of the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City. For instance, a lengthy power outage may force older adults to choose between paying next month’s rent and replacing the spoiled food in their fridge.

“I think just being on a fixed income, it has people precariously balanced on a really fine edge, and it doesn’t take much to push people over the edge into some really difficult situations,” she said.

Older tenants are protected from age-based discrimination through the federal Fair Housing Act, which outlaws discrimination against renters and homebuyers. Under the law, landlords can’t evict older Americans because of their age.

“But if (an eviction is) based on your income, which is lower because you don’t have adequate economic security in retirement, that is not something that the law protects you against,” said Patti Prunhuber, senior housing attorney for nonprofit advocacy organization Justice in Aging.

Although housing discrimination against older adults is illegal, federal, local and state laws don’t offer aging people special protections against eviction, Prunhuber and other housing attorneys said. Some local and state laws give older adults or people with disabilities more time to move out during an eviction.

Since the pandemic, older adults have been more isolated and at higher risk of homelessness

One myth about older adults on fixed incomes, Prunhuber said, is that they haven’t been financially impacted by the pandemic.

“While their fixed income may not have changed, they may have still had a part-time job or other work that they could no longer do or they were laid off from,” she said. “They could have been living in a household where other members of the household (who) had contributed to household expenses have lost their jobs.”

Older people also may have faced new expenses, like food or medication delivery, Prunhuber said, or they may have lost access to resources like free meal programs that were put on hold.

Hyman said his organization has had a fair number of clients in Philadelphia who fell short on rent after family members lost work and could no longer give them money for rent.

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At the same time, some older adults have become more isolated, Hyman said.

“It’s left a lot of seniors very vulnerable to all kinds of problems, including but not limited to eviction, and these problems can often compound upon another,” he said. “If a senior loses their housing, suddenly they don’t have an address to have their drugs delivered, and they miss their drugs and their medical problems get worse.”

During the pandemic, Mueller said the Homeless Alliance’s street outreach team reported seeing more aging adults who were homeless and living outdoors in Oklahoma City.

“So part of my speculation there is you have seniors who were already medically vulnerable, already on fixed incomes, already experiencing things like isolation, and then the pandemic hit, and it just exacerbates all of that,” Mueller said. “It exacerbates the isolation component. It impacts income.”

Mueller said the Homeless Alliance has had several older clients who had been living with a family member but became homeless after that relative died due to covid.

In response to the needs of its older clients, the nonprofit used funding from the federal CARES Act relief package to hire an aging specialist who focuses on connecting older adults with housing.

For unsheltered older adults who can live independently, the aging specialist may help them obtain a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, find housing and assist with things like deposits or moving.

More often, Mueller said, the Homeless Alliance’s older clients need ongoing care in a skilled nursing facility, assisted living center or another setting, which can cost residents thousands of dollars each month.

“To get into a nursing home, you have to have a pay source, and so if someone doesn’t have insurance or they don’t receive Social Security, the process literally might start with, ‘Let’s try to get you signed up for Social Security income. Let’s try to get you signed up for Medicare.’”

Eviction can force older adults out of communities where they’ve lived for decades

The United States doesn’t have enough affordable rental homes for the older adults who need them. When aging adults are evicted, that shortage can push them out of a neighborhood, city or an entire region.

“Very few of our clients can afford to go out and rent a market-rate home in San Francisco,” Drohan said.

During the pandemic, a market with surging housing prices and few affordable units has left older renters with even fewer options. Hyman said his clients in Philadelphia have had a much harder time finding new housing than in the past.

“Previously, I was pretty comfortable telling someone, ‘If you work with a housing counselor, you should be able to find a place in two or three months and be able to move out,” he said. “Now it’s taking people longer.”

Beyond affordability, older adults must consider factors like accessibility, transportation and proximity to medical care, which can further limit their options when choosing where to live.

At least 1 in 3 older adults have a disability, according to 2019 Census data analyzed by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Even so, less than 4% of US homes had basic accessibility features in 2011, the latest year with available data.

The United States’ aging housing stock tends to be less accessible for people with disabilities. While the Fair Housing Act requires accessible features for apartment buildings with at least four units, the law doesn’t apply to buildings with three units or less or those built before 1991.

As a result, accessible apartments tend to be concentrated in newer and costlier multi-family buildings. Tenants can request reasonable accommodations, such as a ramp or grab bar, but landlords don’t have to fund those accommodations, and tenants may be unable to afford them, said Ora Prochovnick, director of litigation and policy at the Eviction Defense Collaborative in San Francisco.

How rent control laws can encourage landlords to evict older tenants

Because older tenants often require more complex services and support to live independently, such as memory care or home health aides, landlords may perceive them as more “difficult” renters, said Samara Scheckler, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Landlords’ attitudes can impact how renters navigate financial relief, given that some covid-19 rental relief programs rely on landlords to participate for tenants to access aid. When older tenants fall behind on rent, “landlords may not go out of their way to keep these tenants, or they may be looking for a reason to have easier tenants to serve,” Scheckler said. 

Some rent control laws also create financial incentives to evict long-term tenants, who disproportionately are older adults, housing attorneys say. Under California law, rent control only exists as long as the original tenants remain in the unit, Prochovnick said. Oregon, which passed the first statewide rent control law in 2019, has a similar policy, known as vacancy decontrol.

This means that tenants who have lived in a rent-controlled building for decades, like Oliver, typically pay far less than neighbors who moved in a year ago, especially in regions where housing costs have risen quickly during the last decade. The longer that a tenant stays in place, the wider this gap grows between the rent-controlled rate and what a landlord could charge by putting a unit on the market. 

Landlords may be more motivated to help newer tenants who fell behind on rent get back on their feet, in part because their replacements would pay similar rates, Prochovnick said. But as eviction bans continue to expire, housing advocates warn that landlords stand to profit by replacing long-term renters.

“It creates a very unfortunate incentive to evict,” Prochovnick said. “My concern is that landlords are going to use this as an opportunity to relocate long-term tenants much more than short-term tenants, and that’s going to much more severely impact the elderly.”

Oliver was grateful that his landlord waited to file eviction papers for as long as possible when he fell behind on rent in 2019. That time made it possible for Oliver to connect with a local nonprofit organization that helped him apply for aid like food stamps, disability benefits and Medicare. The organization put him in touch with San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Collaborative, which provided an attorney who took on Oliver’s case. 

A loan from Oliver’s brother caught him up on rent, and the issue was resolved with a settlement last year. 

Oliver has continued to live in the apartment where he and his border collie, Jack, are comfortable. He doesn’t have to part with the home that he has poured himself into all those years and made his own — with bay windows that he likes and the hardwood floors and crown moldings he worked on himself. 

For now, he’s getting by on income from Social Security and other programs, though it isn’t enough. Oliver may need to find a roommate if it comes to that, but he’d prefer to keep living alone. 

“Before when I was working, I used to hear about people falling through the cracks. I never thought I’d be in this situation, but it’s the way it is,” Oliver said.

He takes one day at a time, and he’s comfortable with that.

“I don’t tend to worry about things I have no control over,” Oliver said. “I’m ok today. I don’t look ahead.”

Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability, aging and economic hardship. She can be reached at sterncarly96@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter.

Contact BigIfTrue.org editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or bryant@bigiftrue.org. Follow her on Twitter.

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