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Home and rental prices continue to soar in Northern Nevada and Northeastern California, leaving more working families and individuals on the brink. Seniors, college students, single parents, immigrants, and the working poor are particularly vulnerable. Some must choose to pay rent over buying food or securing healthcare. The lack of affordable housing in urban and rural areas alike is changing the identity of this region. In response, the KUNR newsroom is examining housing through many lenses, including the economic, political, and public health impacts.You can also subscribe to the Priced Out Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Amid Rising Rents In Washoe, More Seniors Are Struggling

Anh Gray

More than a third of Washoe County residents are 50 years or older. Across the country, the aging population is experiencing unprecedented growth. A recent report from the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies found the nation is unprepared to meet the housing needs for seniors. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray explores how the lack of affordable housing in Northern Nevada is impacting low-income seniors in particular.

Washoe County Senior Services located near downtown Reno is a bustling gathering place for some of the region’s older residents. Many pop in to play games like pool, grab a coffee or stay for lunch.

In the cafeteria, volunteer Jennifer Nix is ladling piping hot bowls of cream of mushroom soup as a mid-morning snack.

Bud Matlock is a 76-year-old retiree. He’s a former truck driver for Mayflower. “I primarily come here to have lunch,” Matlock explains how he spends most of his days. “The lunches are healthy and they use lots of fresh vegetables.” Matlock comes daily to socialize, and for a good meal. His favorites include lasagna and clam chowder.

About 20% of those eating lunch at the center report that’s the only meal they eat for the whole day. Washoe provides thousands of homebound seniors with deliveries—commonly known as “meals on wheels,” and also dishes up lunches at several community locations. In 2017, operating at max capacity, the county provided nearly 400,000 meals.

Volunteer Jennifer Nix is ladling hot bowls of cream of mushroom soup at Washoe County Senior Services.

Like many older Americans, Matlock lives on a fixed income. He says he’s lucky to be in public housing. “You know my rent is subsidized, and full rent for my apartment would be $900 a month. I mean that would take 75 to 80% of my income, so if it wasn’t subsidized, I could not live there. So that’s the only way that I survive. I could not move out and just go into any apartment or pay the rents.”

Matlock lives in a building designated for seniors. It’s managed by the Reno Housing Authority, which receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The Reno Housing Authority provides subsidized housing for low-income individuals and families. There are more than 700 public housing units and about 2500 vouchers that can be used on the open market are offered.

Right now across the country, a third of adults aged 50 and over spend roughly a third of their income on housing. Many are forced to cut back on food and health care.

Mishon Hurst is with the Reno Housing Authority. “The senior population doesn’t have the ability to increase their income like a family, would find a new job, different sources of income,” Hurst explains why older residents find it difficult to adjust to the hikes in housing costs. “Typically they’re on social security or a pension, and that’s a fixed amount.”

Due to the growing demand, Hurst says there is a waiting list for public housing that can take several years. And even for those who qualify for the voucher program based on their income, finding a place can seem nearly impossible. “That is an issue that we are coming across more and more as time goes on because landlords are increasing their rents,” Hurst says many people can’t find affordable options even if they get rent subsidies from her agency. “The supply and demand of the market right now, there’s so many people out there that are looking for units— that aren’t voucher holders—and so they opt not to accept the voucher because they can find someone who doesn’t have one easily.”

Bud Matlock resides in a public housing facility designated for seniors. The residence is managed by the Reno Housing Authority. He comes daily to Washoe Senior Services to enjoy lunch with his friends.

Being priced out of a home is an experience 61-year-old Marie Blank dealt with personally a few years ago. “I was in a house out in Stead, and they remodeled it and sold it,” Blank explains. “They gave me a month’s notice. I could have used more time, but they wanted to start remodeling right away.”

Blank is a former bus driver for the Washoe County School District, retiring after more than decade because of a shoulder injury. Other unexpected life changes like the death of her husband have made the last few years tough. Blank is currently living with her son. “We just had to find the cheapest place we could go to and that’s the motel we’re at now,” Blank says.

Weekly motels peppered throughout the city have increasingly become a more affordable option for seniors. Last year, about 1300 seniors were living in Reno motels.

About 20% of seniors who get a hot lunch from Washoe County Senior Services report it's the only meal they might have all day.

Abby Badolato is a senior services coordinator with the county. “I definitely think that we do see the need,” Badolato explains that there is increased demand for help among seniors in the community. “People just coming to our front desk who are either being evicted or are in need of housing and I think that we’re seeing growing numbers of that being the issue.”

Therein lies the problem Badolato explains. More and more people need housing, but with the low supply out there, the demand keeps driving the prices even higher, limiting the affordable options for low-income seniors.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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