Photo: Shalom House
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.--When members of Albuquerque’s Jewish community drive past the David Specter Shalom House many feel reassured that, as they or their parents age, some sort of low-cost residential independent housing will be there if they need it.
They may, in fact, be surprised to find such housing is very scarce here.
Although rumors circulating last fall that Shalom House was about to close
Certain Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews have been shown to be especially long-lived. (Several family members of this writer, for instance, have lived beyond 100.)
While research has long shown that in the general population about half of those living past age 85 develop some form of dementia, along with numerous chronic diseases, the Einstein Aging Study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York has shown that the longevity gene carried by Ashkenazi descendants carries with it additional protection from heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
And a study they published in 1996 also showed a causal relationship with preservation of cognitive function, especially with good cholesterol (with high HDL, the ‘good’ one) and avoidance of metabolic syndrome.
However, conditions such as strokes, combined with falls, may debilitate seniors long before they reach 100-and long after the money runs out.
This writer, pondering her own fate, asked what she should plan to do when she reaches into her 90s. Perhaps reflecting the frustrations of those who have been dealing with these issues for many years without seeing any public policies put in place that would offer solutions, one Shalom House board member tartly—and somewhat ambiguously—replied, “By then, there’ll be a pill for that.”
--Diane Joy Schmidt
That’s a concern not only for local seniors, but for the many baby boomers who moved here from large cities with expectations about aging in a slower, kinder environment.
However, good, well-maintained, subsidized independent-living housing is rare. Shalom House has an average three-year waiting period for available units with 15 currently on the list hoping to move in.
The building is one of only 42 federally subsidized senior apartment developments in New Mexico. And commercial retirement complexes are priced out of reach for many.
National Senior-Housing Shortage
It’s not just a problem in New Mexico, but is growing nationally. A 2014 study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and the AARP Foundation concluded that even with the rapid growth of the 50-plus population in the United States, “Housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply.”
This is partly because in 2012 Congress discontinued funds for new senior housing programs that finance the building of and rental assistance for subsidized housing. Congress authorized these tax incentives for private affordable-housing developers under Section 202 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for senior housing.
Although the government is continuing limited funds for existing rental subsidies as well as building repairs, when these Sec. 202 contracts come up for renewal around the country, developers are increasingly declining to renew them in order to convert the buildings for market-rate rentals or condo sales. Seniors in many cities are being been evicted if they can’t pay the escalated costs.
Private alternatives in Albuquerque can be very expensive. For example, La Vida Llena, a deluxe senior community offering four residential tiers from independent through assisted living to nursing care, requires a large initial down payment that guarantees permanent residence, plus a substantial monthly fee.
That’s well beyond the reach of those who might be living on fixed incomes, such as the many artists and writers who were drawn to New Mexico and whose careers provided few pensions or opportunities to save for retirement.
Rumors Put to Rest
Albuquerque’s Shalom House sits just to the south of the Jewish Community Center. Rumors circulated last fall–increasing community members’ concern — that Shalom House was going to close in 2016.
Putting those rumors to rest, Judy Weinreb, board president of the nonprofit Jewish Community Housing Corporation (JCHC) that runs Shalom House, said in an interview, “Shalom House has just renewed certifications for the next 10 years” and not the shorter five-year option under Sec. 202 rules.
The development has 47 total units, with a maximum occupancy of 70 people.
Because the development was ultimately built with federal funds under the Section 202 program and with Title IX’s Civil Rights requirements, it could not give any preference to Jewish residents.
Jennie Negin, 76, a JCHC board member and a former president of Jewish Family Services, fondly recalled that her mother was the very first resident of Shalom House, saying, “She loved it.”
However, over time the number of Jewish residents dwindled. Today, not more than four or five of the residents are Jewish.
Weinreb and Negin both stressed, though, that Shalom House has its roots in the traditional Jewish mission of tikkun olam, which means “repair of the world”– whether it serves Jewish people or others.
Section 202 Seniors Housing
HUD’s Sec. 202 program includes tax credits for affordable-housing developers, plus special rental assistance for those who qualify to move in. At least one resident of a unit must be 62 or older and each household can have no more than 50 percent of the area’s median income. That program subsidy allows the renter to pay no more than 30 percent of his or her income for rent while the government pays the difference–up to a point.
By 2025, the JCHC will pay off the Shalom House mortgage. Weinreb and Negin both stressed that the board intends to keep the facility as subsidized housing long into the future. There is clearly no plan to convert the property to market–rate housing, nor is it likely feasible to do so.
Weinreb also addressed the issue of who owns Shalom House. Members of the Jewish community have long assumed the land and building are owned or controlled by the Jewish Federation and/or the Jewish Community Center. She explained though that to obtain the financing, JCHC has to own the building and property as a separate 501c3 nonprofit.
She emphasized, though, that JCHC has a cordial relationship with the Federation and JCC.
Anxiety about the future of Shalom House might have been fueled by the sudden closure two years ago of Jewish Family Services.
Sec. 202 requires developers to connect residents with outside services, such as health care, transportation, education and social activities. Although Shalom House does not provide assisted living services, the facility does have a service coordinator.
For many years JFS provided its service coordinator for Shalom House residents. But the nonprofit agency had a financial crisis when key federal grants ended, which some say had also overextended their mission beyond the Jewish community, and was forced to shut their doors overnight.
Fortunately, when the agency closed down, she said, HUD was able to fund a service coordinator at the residence. Then the Jewish Care Program (JCP) was created with a part-time social work staff, who also oversee the needs of local Holocaust survivors.
Paula Amar Schwartz, a former JFS board president who helped to establish the new program, emphasized that JCP still needs to be expanded to meet the needs of the Jewish community here.
But limited long-term care options for the rapidly aging U.S. population—with the vulnerable 85-plus population being the fastest growing age demographic—is raising concern nationally. Some believe the lack of affordable options leaves a vacuum for many members of the Jewish community in Albuquerque.
Diane Joy Schmidt wrote a longer version of this article for New Mexico Jewish eLink with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation.