Seniors and Affordable Housing: Bridging the Connectivity Gap

Legislation | April 20, 2020 | by Juliana Bilowich

Technology has helped low-income seniors connect to critical services throughout the pandemic. We need more of it.

What do isolation, critical services, and affordable senior housing have in common? They all rely on limited technology. LeadingAge is asking Congress to help bridge the connectivity gap for low-income older adults.

Combatting Isolation with Connectivity

Social distancing measures have exacerbated isolation concerns for many older adults in affordable housing. In response to the pandemic, many low-income seniors have replaced housing community activities with phone calls to friends and family – only to run out of limited minutes on their government-subsidized cell phones. Few affordable housing communities have the resources to pay for, or even support, internet connectivity in apartment units, effectively cutting off these seniors from the community.

To bridge the connectivity gap, LeadingAge is asking Congress to fund internet connectivity in HUD-assisted affordable housing communities to the tune of $50 million dollars. We are also gathering more information about subsidized cell phone plans to expand our advocacy.

Coordinating Services and Support

Service Coordinators in affordable housing help address daily needs of older adults. By checking in with residents over the phone, or by leaving activities, information, or critical supplies at their apartment door, Service Coordinators are on the front lines of senior health and wellbeing; in many cases, a senior housing community’s Service Coordinator may be the only person making sure the older adult has access to food, medical care, or family support throughout the pandemic.

Many Service Coordinators, who work on site at about half of HUD Section 202 Senior Housing communities, have limited access to remote platforms to continue safely supporting residents. LeadingAge is asking for expanded Service Coordinator funds for additional staff time and remote work platforms, and to expand service coordination to all HUD Section 202 communities.

Accessing Services

Technology plays a key role in helping seniors access home- and community-based services. Because of the health crisis, many providers have curbed service delivery to limit in-person interaction. For example, congregate meal services may have stopped temporarily, or may have switched to delivering individual meals using an online ordering platform.

Similarly, access to in-person medical care has in many cases been replaced with telehealth appointments – a tough switch for some older adults with limited connectivity or experience with online platforms. Again, affordable housing communities need both connectivity and service coordination to best serve older adult residents through this emergency.

Electronic Operations

The pandemic has required a nimble response from affordable housing providers. Technology has allowed properties to continue operations with remote staff, and has allowed providers to temporarily limit in-person interaction with residents. However, many electronic processes are still restricted by HUD, the federal agency overseeing much of the country’s designated senior affordable housing communities.

Several critical operations in HUD-assisted housing, including moving in a new resident, renewing an annual lease, and adjusting an existing resident’s rent calculation because of financial hardship, normally requires the submission of a paper document with an original signature. After requests by LeadingAge and our partners, HUD has allowed for some helpful electronic options for property operations.

Without these types of housing operations, the property can lose federal subsidies used to maintain safe housing, and residents can lose their apartment or forgo a lowered rent payment that is fair for their income level. To keep operations running smoothly, and to save overwhelmed staff and residents from tracking down original documents and signatures months later, LeadingAge is asking that the electronic streamlining allowed by HUD be expanded and, more importantly, be made permanent.

A complete list of senior housing Congressional asks is available in our recent advocacy letter.