By Omar Passons
My mother is 84 years old. She did not earn a high school diploma, and spent the better part of her life caring for children in San Diego County whose parents were unable, unwilling, or unfit to care for them.
She was a foster parent to me and over 100 other children in this community. But she could not afford the incredible surge in rents and costs at assisted living facilities that have overwhelmed the San Diego region.
It was only through the good fortune of having adult children in several states that she was able to find — and afford to relocate to — a safe, clean home in a rural part of another state. The struggles my brother and I had helping my mom here in San Diego have compelled me to carefully examine what impact the housing crisis is having on other seniors in our community, and the picture is not pretty.
UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research publishes the Elder Economic Security Standard (called the “Elder Index”) to help policymakers better understand the true depth of instability that our community’s senior citizens face.
What we know from the Elder Index is that approximately 240,000 San Diegans in our region cannot afford the basic costs of food, health care, transportation and housing. What is more, the number of seniors facing these burdens is expected to increase to more than 400,000 in the coming years if we as a region do not act.
As I think about the many senior citizen friends and neighbors I had growing up in Clairemont, working in southeastern San Diego and now living here in Mid-City, the crushing role of our housing crisis really worries me. I have friends who are LGBTQ seniors who were not allowed to have children and must navigate a system that is frequently difficult and understaffed just to understand what options exist.
I am reminded of the many older neighbors over the years who are in homes that are not retrofitted for their needs but who lack the resources to either make these changes or afford assisted living. And I have met many senior citizens on fixed incomes who were not able to own a home and must now suffer under the weight of a rental vacancy rate in the San Diego region that is below 5 percent — a figure that places incredible pressure on senior citizens.
All of these facts are brought into stark relief when we realize that in San Diego County senior citizens are the fastest-growing segment of our homeless population. With more than 5,600 people sleeping on the streets — the federal government’s technical definition for which is, ironically, “a place not fit for human habitation” — we certainly have a crisis that extends to families and children and others as well.
But senior citizens are faced with greater burdens than other groups for several reasons. Senior citizens often have income barriers brought on by limited Social Security payments and, in the case of LGBTQ seniors, a system that failed to ensure spousal benefits. Also, for those who need in-home health care, some senior citizens are left to make up the difference in cost of the dramatic underfunding by our county of wages and service hours for the workers who provide those critical services.
Further, unlike many younger counterparts, the opportunities for senior citizens to upskill and return to get education or certifications simply do not exist in one’s later years the way they do earlier in life. Finally, the lack of retirement security brought on by massive shifts away from pension systems is causing a new stress to our system as seniors are increasingly unable to afford what are supposed to be their “golden years.”
The state legislature is in the process of considering three housing measures, SB2, SB3 and SB35, that can provide some relief. SB2, authored by San Diego state Sen. Toni G. Atkins, is an affordable housing measure supported by the California Association of Realtors that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars towards building modest homes that must remain affordable for people on minimal incomes, like senior citizens.
Sen. Atkins’ bill would further leverage as much as $3 billion in federal resources to help our entire state begin to address this crushing burden on our most vulnerable and in-need populations.
Supporting a regional affordable housing measure that would focus on San Diego’s need would be a smart long-term investment in our own community. Such a measure would help senior citizens immediately and be a long run benefit to taxpayers who would see a decrease in high-cost homeless services. The state is beginning to do its part and it is time for our San Diego region to step up as well.
—Omar Passons is a land-use and construction attorney and longtime local leader who is running for the County Board of Supervisors, District 4.