Home affordability crisis hits local seniors hard Operation Fix It

The Operation Fix It program provides volunteers to provide maintenance and repair services to Scottsdale residents in need, including many elderly residents.

As property values and rental rates continue to rise in Scottsdale, there is little incentive for developers and property owners to invest in more affordable housing production.

That has created an especially insecure environment for some of the city’s oldest residents, who are disproportionately affected by the problem, according to multiple local officials and city staff.

Beyond severely restricting the neighborhoods where low-income residents can find housing, the problem has ancillary effects as well.

Camaron Stevenson, spokesperson for the Arizona Housing Coalition, said if workers cannot afford to live in a city, that can increase commute times, pollution and wear and tear on transportation infrastructure.

The affordable housing problem is acute in Arizona, which is third worst in the U.S. with only 25 affordable housing units available for every 100 extremely low-income families, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2019 GAP report.

Scottsdale currently distributes federally-funded vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, to subsidize rents for qualified low-income families.

The City of Scottsdale has 734 vouchers allotted to it from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has 690 of those vouchers leased out and 6,211 families still on the waiting list, said Greg Bestgen, city human services director.

Bestgen said there are also places called 202 properties in Scottsdale that take only one-third of a qualified low-income resident’s income for rent.

“We’re finding that there are fewer landlords willing to participate in the program,” Bestgen said.

The most obvious effect that a lack of affordable housing can have on a city is homelessness. Though Scottsdale’s homeless population is relatively small compared to other cities in the region, it is growing.

Bestgen said the number of people experiencing homelessness in Scottsdale grew from 67 in 2018 to 76 in 2019.

Homelessness can be a real threat for some older residents in Scottsdale who live on a fixed income. A variety of factors, from increasing rents to outliving their savings, can make it difficult for these residents to stay in Scottsdale.

“We have folks at our senior centers that come to us that have recently experienced either a medical emergency or a financial emergency and find themselves living in their car,” Bestgen said, noting that many of those residents have lived in Scottsdale for decades.

“I want to make people aware that there is an issue,” Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp said. “My overall concern has to do with dwindling supply of senior housing.”

Klapp said that due to increasing rents “in Scottsdale, we will see an increasing homeless population or we will see seniors living in their cars. The result of rapidly escalating rents in my mind are catastrophic, and we must start getting serious about the problem.”

The city Human Services Department does have resources available, in some cases, to move residents to other cities with more affordable housing units.

But relocation can inadvertently remove these seniors from their local support system that includes churches, friends, doctors and even city staff they have grown to rely on.

“It’s very traumatic for them to be uprooted from their community,” Bestgen said. “Especially the fears of the unknown; of a different community outside of Scottsdale. It can be just a real high stress or for these individuals.”

The affordability issue for seniors is not just in southern Scottsdale, either.

Bestgen said he sees increased risk of homeless in the north because of high property values and in the central Scottsdale near Via Linda Senior Center.

“There was a survey done several years ago, and it did a illuminate that there’s a large percentage of folks in that area (near Via Linda Senior Center) that are living at about a $30,000 a year income,” Bestgen said.

“And so, when you look at the rents in that area, it’s pretty hard to stay there,” he added.

Klapp said rents in that area are rising at an unsustainable rate for many in the elderly population.

“They are working with individuals at (the) peak of rent they can afford,” Klapp said. “They used to see rent increases of $25 per month; now seeing rents rise between $100 to $200 per month.”

A confluence of factors from a lack of government funding to a booming real estate market makes it impractical for property owners to invest in affordable options.

Scottsdale has experienced an apartment boom in recent years, with thousands of units injected into the community, especially down south, but the lion’s share of those new complexes are not anywhere close to affordable.

The issue goes back further than the most recent building boom, though.

Scottsdale resident Susan Unmacht, who has worked professionally with vulnerable populations, said the apartment to condo conversion trend in the mid-2000s cost the city 3,000 affordable housing units.

Unmacht’s sister Nancy Cantor, a community activist and former member of Scottsdale’s now-dissolved Housing Board, points to redevelopment efforts in the south that replaced affordable housing options with more costly properties.

Cantor spearheaded an effort to relocate just under 100 low-income residents at the Wheel Inn mobile home park in southern Scottsdale when they were evicted due to impending development in 2015.

With no existing policy in place to help those residents, Cantor, city staff and some Council members rallied to find new housing to advocate for those residents and keep basis necessities, like running water, in place until they moved.

Cantor said they helped 74 of the 90 residents relocate to properties outside of Scottsdale.

The Wheel Inn property is now being redeveloped as the North 70 community from Taylor Morrison, with homes selling in the $400,000 to $459,900 range.

So, what is the city’s role in addressing the affordable housing shortage?

That depends on who you ask.

Klapp said the city needs to do more for its elderly residents.

“We have seniors who have lived here for much of their lives and want to stay here,” Klapp said. “Rather than push them out to another community, we at least owe them a discussion about can there be anything done to keep them here.”

Mayor Jim Lane struck a different chord.

He said in some cases it may make more sense for people on a fixed income to move to less expensive communities.

“I’m not trying to sound harsh when I say that, but it is some kind of fact of life that if you choose never to save a dime or you’re not ready for retirement (you may have to move),” Lane said.

Lane said a program specifically “for people who are over the age of 80 and can’t afford to stay in her home or something like that makes more sense than relieving somebody of an obligation when they should be in a position to be taken care of themselves.”

Cantor said the city should do more to incentivize affordable options in new developments.

However, that can be difficult, said Stevenson, because Arizona has laws that bar municipalities from imposing affordable housing requirements on developers.

Lane said he supported existing programs in the city, such as Operation Fix It, that help in-need residents afford repairs and maintenance on their homes.

There are also a number of services provided by the city in conjunction with nonprofits that support those in need, such as Adopt-a-Senior and Adopt-a-family holiday programs, Beat the Heat and back-to-school supply donations.

Scottsdale Human Services is also able to provide things like gift cards, gas cards and other resources to some elderly residents struggling because of high housing costs.

Bestgen also said the city has social workers, job training programs and other resources available through the Human Services Department.

To Lane, partnering with non-profit organizations like Family Promise using the CDBG block grants is the best use of city resources.

He was adamantly in favor of programs that “provide a hand up, not a hand out” versus programs without work requirements. “Something like the Family Promise, which is for families, is really my preferred way to go…they have an 86 percent rate of transitioning someone to a job and into housing,” Lane said.

Still, the city only has so much money from federal grants to put into those ventures — it accepted $1.1 million in CDBG grants and just over $330,000 in home funds for the upcoming year.

“It’s about the only (tool) we have, but it’s not a great one because there are so many more people than units…One of the strategies we can take as a city is to find more landlords to take the vouchers and to make landlords aware of the problem. If they don’t accept them, we can’t expand the supply,” Klapp said.

The prospect of convincing developers and property owners to increase the supply of voucher properties is not good, though, because the market rate in the city is so high, Bestgen said.

According to a study by the Urban Institute in collaboration with the National Housing Conference, it is difficult for developers to create affordable housing complexes for a variety of factors, including rising land and construction labor costs and limited availability of federal and state grants to offset the costs.

And then there’s the question of whether there is the community appetite or political will in Scottsdale to actually dig into the problem or whether the city as a whole is content to let the market decide who can live there.

“The biggest obstacle I would say is simply the demand in any community to live in that community because of the amenities and the environment…and that drives prices,” Lane said.

The city has continually turned down opportunities to build affordable housing, including a 2000 ballot initiative that would have approved the use of $12.9 million to purchase land for affordable housing.

“It was once said to me, and this doesn’t just apply to Scottsdale, discrimination takes place on the basis of income,” Lane said. “If you’re looking for inexpensive housing, this is probably not the destination because you’ve got a lot of people who are looking to live here.”