WASHINGTON — A TWO-PRONGED effort is now under way - at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and in Congress - to provide more low-cost housing for America's elderly poor. The effort at HUD is likely to make quicker progress. Almost 2 million poor and elderly Americans qualify for government-subsidized housing but don't live in it, according to HUD's own estimates. The biggest reason is that there isn't enough available subsidized housing. Further, too little new housing is being built, due in large part to diminished federal appropriations for housing construction funds, and to problems within HUD during the past several years.
A task force appointed by HUD Secretary Jack Kemp is working on how to unclog the department's construction pipeline for the principal program for elderly housing called Section 202. Secretary Kemp says that over the past four years this clog has kept almost 30,000 elderly housing units, which were both approved and financed, from being built.
The clog ``is in large part due to overly restrictive HUD policies in the past,'' says Thomas Humbert, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for policy. Kemp says he is shocked by past inaction, and promises to get housing construction moving as quickly as possible.
Eight applicants are waiting for every available existing apartment that is subsidized by Section 202, according to a new study financed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
Section 202 ``is the centerpiece of elderly housing programs, but there are other housing programs out there'' that serve elderly Americans, says Larry McNickle, of the American Association of Homes for the Aging. ``Almost half the people in public housing are elderly,'' he notes.
But no new public housing complexes are being built, in part because by general agreement many public housing projects in America are in a sorry state - beset by disrepair, crime, and drugs. Washington wants proof that public housing can be kept in sound and safe condition before it agrees to build more.
In Congress, the Senate and House of Representatives are considering two differing proposals to provide additional funds for HUD programs, including those that deal with housing for the elderly. Senate action may well occur this year, but most experts think it unlikely the House will act in 1989.
``I don't think you're going to see any major new initiatives whatever'' in housing this year, says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. ``If anything, I think you're going to see some programs put on hold.''
Many members want to wait for Congress to complete hearings on past HUD abuses. In addition, the House Banking Committee, which is in charge of drawing up housing bills, has been busy for months working on a law to deal with the savings-and-loan crisis.
Nevertheless, House Speaker Thomas Foley says he hopes Congress will pass a bill to provide more low-income housing during this congressional session, which includes next year. ``We have a crisis in this country'' in low-income housing, Speaker Foley says.
Enacting a new housing measure next year will depend not only on whether Democrats can reach a consensus among themselves, but whether they can find common ground with the Bush administration. ``I hope we can develop consensus with this administration on a program that will begin to address this problem,'' Foley cautiously adds.
Most of the elderly Americans in need of good low-cost housing are older women, says Mr. McNickle. And most are renters, adds Don Redfoot, a housing legislative specialist for AARP. Three elderly Americans in every four own their own homes, Mr. Redfoot says. But it's that fourth person ``where you find major problems. They're likely to be older and poorer than the homeowners,'' he adds.
A Harvard University study concurs. It found that the median income for renters over 65 in the United States is $9,500, compared with $18,000 for homeowners. The disparity in net worth is far starker. Renters over 65 have a median wealth of $2,600, but homeowners have a wealth of $108,000.
Many elderly poor require assistance beyond housing, such as meal preparation, dressing, or transportation. Since ``80 percent of the support services of older people'' come from families and neighbors, McNickle says, the problem of elderly housing ``affects all of us. It's intergenerational. We're concerned about our aging parents, both emotionally and economically.''
One of the changes that Kemp wants to make in the existing Section 202 program is to make available congregate dining facilities and the support services that some of the elderly poor residents require. In their zeal to cut costs, previous HUD officials during the Reagan years held down construction costs so tightly that some 202 facilities lack dining rooms, and have no access to support services.
Mr. Humbert says Kemp will ask Congress for additional funds to put such facilities and services into existing 202 housing developments. These changes ought to be made for humane reasons, Humbert says. But he adds that they are also financially sound. If people can't obtain assistance in later years they may instead require admission to a nursing home, which is more expensive.