Opinion: City zoning plan key to expanding senior housing

By 2030, older New Yorkers will account for an estimated 20 percent of New York City’s population; yet the capacity to accommodate them in appropriate housing is severely limited. We are painfully aware of the poor conditions that many of our city’s seniors live in – often in walk-up buildings, feeling isolated, and without appropriate services or a family member or social worker to check on them, especially as they age and become frailer. Additionally, an estimated one in five older New Yorkers lives in poverty (under $11,170 per year), with many trying to make ends meet on Social Security alone. A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission found that single seniors are the most severely rent burdened – 32 percent pay more than half of their income in rent.

Recognizing the significant and growing needs of this population, the Department of City Planning, through its proposed Zoning for Quality and Affordability Plan, would allow for organizations like Selfhelp, a nonprofit senior housing provider with approximately 4,000 people on our waitlist for housing and an 11-year waitlist for our buildings, to build new affordable housing with less restrictive requirements.  

With today’s insufficient supply of affordable senior housing, many older adults must stay in homes that are unsafe or unsuitable for their needs. This includes living on upper floors of non-elevator buildings, in large apartments that are difficult to maintain, or in spaces too small to accommodate a wheelchair or walker – all contributing to physical and psychological health and safety concerns. The situation is further complicated by an understandable desire to remain in the community they have called home, often for many years.

About two months ago, Selfhelp was able to move two brothers into one of our affordable buildings in Flushing. They were previously living in a walk-up building in the same neighborhood and were often socially isolated since one of them was wheelchair-bound. After the move, one of them shared that he was able to explore his neighborhood for the first time, since the elevator allowed him to get around more easily. A longer-term resident noted that once she moved to one of our buildings, she no longer felt isolated on cold or snowy days, since there were always people to socialize with in the common areas. She was also able to access social workers and health services, if needed.  

The city’s proposal would allow new housing to be built where it’s most appropriate. A significant change in the proposal would eliminate most parking requirements for low-income senior developments, an amenity that remains mostly unused because of accessible transportation and low automobile use. These changes will increase the amount of senior housing and affordable housing that can be built by maximizing site utilization, while also ensuring higher quality buildings across the city through improved ground floor retail spaces and reduced parking requirements. Furthermore, additional square footage allowances would allow for somewhat larger floor areas, and other amenity and accessory uses like gathering spaces, as well as social and wellness services designed specifically for seniors.

As a longstanding nonprofit organization in New York City, Selfhelp is sensitive to the negative impacts of shortsighted development and committed to maintaining the affordability of senior housing. We firmly believe that properly planned affordable senior housing will add to and strengthen the character of communities throughout the city.

In May of 2015, Selfhelp joined with LiveOn NY and 25 leading non-profit senior housing providers who collectively operate 20,000 units of citywide senior housing. We conducted a study and developed recommendations on how to build more housing for this population. Our proposal would primarily utilize unused parking lots at existing buildings as well as other vacant parcels. The survey analyzed 277 existing affordable senior buildings and 191 accessory parking lots across the city with the ultimate aim of selecting feasible sites for new senior housing development. Based on carefully determined criteria, 39 accessory parking lots were determined to be feasible for additional building, with a concentration in the Bronx, central and south Brooklyn and eastern Queens. Together, those sites have the potential to create an additional 2,000 units of affordable senior housing. Without the passage of the Zoning for Quality and Affordability amendment, those 39 lots will sit underutilized.

As this process moves forward, I urge the City Council and community leaders to keep the needs of seniors in mind and the benefits of having accessible, culturally-competent services and high-quality affordable housing for the fastest growing segment of New York City’s population.

Stuart Kaplan is CEO of the nonprofit Selfhelp Community Services.