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Older Adults Living on Low Incomes Need Housing Options

10/23/2015 08:18 EDT | Updated 10/23/2016 05:12 EDT
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Cape Town, South Africa

By Arlene Adamson and Irene Martin-Lindsay

It was recently reported that Calgary has some of the most expensive seniors' housing in Canada, at $3,100 a month, some $1,000 over the national average.

Headlines like these catch people's attention, especially during our recent election. There's no doubt that the article has a point: we do need more affordable seniors' housing in this country. The flip side is that this particular headline has the potential to stop seniors who need affordable housing from deciding to move, because they think all such housing is out of their reach economically or there is none to be had.

The story was based on a recent Federation of Canadian Municipalities report entitled "Seniors and Housing: The Challenge Ahead." And while we agree all federal candidates need to be aware of the challenges ahead, the reality on the ground in a recession-bound Calgary is different.

To begin with, it's important to look closely at the methodology of the report itself. The average costs for housing were based on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. data that does not include subsidized seniors' housing information. This is a big omission, especially for Calgary, where we have more than 5,200 subsidized independent living units and more than 900 subsidized supportive living units. Alberta actually has more public and not-for-profit seniors' housing than any other province in Canada, based on population.

In fact, our research at the Alberta Seniors Communities & Housing Association (ASCHA) shows that these subsidies are quite deep. Subsidized independent living units are usually governed by a rent-geared-to-income formula that means seniors only pay a maximum of 30 per cent of their income in rent.

ASCHA's online seniors housing directory provides a listing of public, not-for-profit and private seniors housing options. There are many units for average monthly rent at purpose-built seniors' residences well below $3,100 per month. In fact, this directory currently shows that approximately half of the sites are rent-geared-to-income, targeted to lower income seniors. Within Silvera for Seniors communities, which is the largest subsidized seniors' housing provider in Calgary, this means an average rent for an independent living unit of a little over $500 per month.

The other major concern is that rent in seniors' housing often includes much more than just housing, especially when we talk about supportive living. "Rent" can include meals, utilities, housekeeping, 24-hour staffing and life-enrichment programs as well.

Silvera operates a subsidized supportive living program on behalf of the government of Alberta in Calgary, and average rents for these communities are actually less than $1,300 per month.

Older adults living on low and fixed incomes definitely have options, and there is no reason for them to stay in homes when they need more support.

However, contrary to the report, at Silvera, we are seeing a slight rise in vacancy rates. Only two years ago, we were in the media reporting we had no vacancies. Today, we do. And being a member of ASCHA, along with other public organizations and private companies, we know that we are not the only ones experiencing this vacancy increase. In part, this is due to the nature of our business. As the average age of our residents is 84, there are a lot of moves, with some residents needing to move to a higher level of care, while others pass away.

Even given our temporary higher vacancy rate, we know that the long-term trend will be for more, not less, affordable seniors housing over the next three decades in Calgary. By 2042, the city is estimating that 15 per cent of Calgary's total population will be older adults, not all of whom will be able to afford market rates.

Agencies like Silvera are vital to ensure all older Canadians can enjoy life to the fullest without financial hardship as they age.

Arlene Adamson is the CEO of Silvera for Seniors, a charitable non-profit organization that provides homes to more than 1,500 lower-income seniors. She is also co-chair of the Seniors and Special Populations Sector Housing Committee and is on the board of the Alberta Seniors Communities and Housing Association.

Irene Martin-Lindsay is the CEO of the Alberta Seniors Communities & Housing Association.

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