‘Nothing in the middle’: senior housing options limited

By Joe Stumpe

After getting divorced in her mid 60s, Darlene Palsmeier was forced to look for a new home. She didn’t like what she found, a least in terms of cost.

With an annual income of $38,640, Palsmeier doesn’t consider herself well off. But when she began applying for apartments in government-subsidized senior living communities around the area, she discovered she was above the income limit for residents by almost $3,000.

Needing a place “pretty quick,” she rented an apartment on Rock Road in east Wichita for $1,400 a month. That equals 43 percent of her monthly income, well above the 30 percent recommended by the government and most experts. 

“I didn’t have any idea this was going to happen at 66,” Palsmeier said. “Now I’m going to be 68 in a couple of weeks.”

Palsmeier’s income comes from Social Security and a pension from her former job at Cessna Aircraft. She said she knows “there are a lot of people who make a lot less than I make” but feels like there’s “nothing in the middle” range for people like herself.

Her experience is not unusual for older residents seeking a new home, the large majority of whom are women. 

“We do get calls like that,” said Melissa Espinoza, resource center supervisor with Central Plains Area Agency on Aging. “We also get calls that they can’t afford any rents in the area any longer, or that the rent has increased from the previous year.”

CPAAA lists about 125 developments in Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey County in its independent living housing directory, which can be viewed at visit cpaaa.org. They range from traditional apartments to communities offering dining plans and other services. Listed prices range up to $3,770 per month. 

“There are a lot of nice properties out there that are coming on the market, but they’re not affordable for the vast majority of the senior population,” said Debbie Martin, who manages senior communities for Homestead Affordable Housing, a nonprofit with 13 developments totaling 550 apartments in Kansas.

The rental housing squeeze also affects many who would qualify for a subsidized apartment based on income.

“We have waiting lists at all of our properties,” said Tom Bishop, Homestead’s executive director.

“Our waiting list at (Homestead) Bel Aire, before we started, was 160,” Bishop said, referring to Homestead’s newest development. It has 36 units.

Across Kansas, there are more than 500 rental housing developments that have been subsidized in some fashion by the government. As Bishop said, their operation is “a bit complex” because of government regulations. Most occupants must have no more than 60 percent of the area median income, which is set by the federal government each year. In the Wichita metropolitan area, which includes Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey counties, that figure is now $35,760. However, some developments contain a small number of units that are not subsidized and that rent at a higher, market rate. For instance, at Homestead of Derby, 64 units are subsidized and 12 are not.

Palsmeier first tried to find an apartment at Central Landing, which is owned by Central Community Church, but was told there was a long waiting list. She “got on a bunch of waiting lists” and also tried Homestead Bel Aire, which is where she learned her income was too high for a subsidized unit. 

She said she almost regretted going to work at Cessna. “I begged to go to work at Cessna just because I needed a job with a pension,” she said. “That $833 (per month) is now hurting me.”

However, she recently got word that she will be able to move into an unsubsidized unit in Homestead’s development in Haysville, which is called Main Street Place, where she’ll pay $599 per month in rent. “They’re old, they were built over 20 years ago, but at least it’s a senior community,” she said. She eventually hopes to move to the Bel Aire development.

“Since I’m trying to get to somewhere I can stay the rest of my life, that’s what my goal is,” she said.

She credits Martin, the Homestead manager, with helping her find a place after nearly a year of looking. 

Martin said Palsmeier’s financial situation is better than many potential tenants she works with, who may have monthly Social Security benefits of only about $1,300.

“It’s very eye opening when you get into this to see, really, how low the incomes are and knowing that if we didn’t have these programs available you would have a lot of more homeless elderly people.”

When she can’t find a new home for an applicant, she advises persistence.

“We just tell them to get on as many wait lists as possible, to apply wherever we have affordable housing or senior housing,” Martin said. “I try to direct them to other properties and other companies that have affordable housing as well. They may have something arise quicker than I will.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Active Age