Seniors Squeezed by Rising Cost of Housing

By Beacon Staff

When Jan Ballard’s husband died last year she found herself without an income. So, after being a stay-at-home mom and then taking care of her husband who was disabled in an industrial accident 24 years ago, Ballard, 60, started her first job outside her home.

“My husband had disability, social security and a workman’s comp sort of deal,” Ballard said. “When he died, I lost all income. It was scary to look for work when you’re not up with the times and everything has gone to computers, and when my work experience had been taking care of my kids and then my husband.”

Ballard joined Experience Works, a federally funded employment program for people age 55 and older, and is training at Kalispell’s Red Cross office.

Affordable housing discussions generally focus on the working class, debating how best to balance the traditionally low Montana wages of those working here with skyrocketing housing costs in the Flathead Valley. With record low unemployment rates, business owners say they need affordable housing to attract and retain employees. But local housing experts and non-profit directors caution that affordable housing is a concern of all age groups, and note that the valley’s seniors face their own unique challenges, including fixed incomes and a lack of subsidized housing.

“I think one of the things that’s unique to these folks is that they’re mostly on a fixed income,” Jim Atkinson, director of Flathead County’s Agency on Aging, said. “With prices and costs going up, how do they make ends meet on a fixed income that’s sometimes as low as $400 a month? That’s trouble galore for these folks. Some of these people have more than that in medicines alone. ”

Ballard has been able to stay in her home only because her youngest son lives with her and pays half the rent. “I’m lucky to have children that still care,” she said. “We pay a pretty average price for here, but I couldn’t make it on my own.”

Subsidized senior apartments provide a low-income alternative for seniors unable to afford or keep up their homes, but despite a push in the last decade to develop more here, availability is remains scarce. Non-age specific subsidized housing is also an option, but is also often full and lacks some of the amenities and comfort of senior-only units. And for those in need of in-house medical attention subsidized apartments aren’t possible; instead, they look to more expensive assisted living and nursing home facilities, which often have their own waiting lists.

According to the Agency on Aging’s housing handbook, there are nine senior-only apartment complexes in Kalispell that provide at least some, if not all, subsidized units. Only one of those senior apartments had an immediate opening last week – a sole, handicap apartment in a complex that otherwise has about a year wait for non-handicap units.

Units in Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Whitefish were also predominately full. Crestview Apartments in Bigfork are building two new units for a total of eight more apartments to meet the demand. Four of the new apartments are already rented, and the manager expects the others to be rented before the buildings are complete.

Many of the affordable housing options in the county exist on the outskirts of towns, but the lack of public transportation and services make those locations undesirable for many seniors.

Robert Levia, manager of Kalispell Senior Apartments, said his apartments average a six-month to one-year waiting list. “That’s how it is in all of the larger cities in Montana,” he said. “There are small towns like Stanford with absolutely beautiful complexes that are half empty. People want to be near hospitals and doctors.”

Medical debts and costs play another key role in affordable housing difficulties, often devastating credit, said Cal Scott, president of the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors. Seniors like Ballard, who is still paying off her husband’s medical bills, can watch their savings and credit disappear with medical collection.

Doug Rauthe, executive director of Northwest Montana Human Resources, said the community began focusing on getting more senior affordable housing about nine years ago, but there’s still obviously a need. “It falls in place with what I say frequently at public meetings: ‘This isn’t a destination it’s a journey. We’re always going to have more to work on.’”

And, Atkinson worries the need is only going to increase as the area’s population grows older. In 1999, 12.8 percent of Flathead County’s population was age 65 or older. Atkinson said that percentage is projected to grow to 23 percent of the population by 2025. According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Montana is projected to be the fifth oldest state in the country by 2025 with almost 25 percent of the population age 65 or older.

“There could be a staggering growth in the senior population,” he said. “That means a lot of agencies, services and businesses – including ours – will need to take a whole different look at what the needs of this community will be.”