A Roof of One's Own

EVERY year the Older Women's League sends an unusual Mother's Day card to members of Congress, calling their attention to a serious but little-known issue affecting mid-life and older women.

This year's card reads: "Unlock the Door to Better Housing." Accompanying it is a report, released yesterday, documenting the severe housing crisis facing older women in America. Titled "Room for Improvement," the report shows how inadequate housing policies jeopardize women's ability to remain independent in their own homes.

At the root of the problem are income disparities between men and women. Women living alone have the lowest income of all household groups.

As a result, nearly 1 in 3 older women spends more than half her income on housing - on rent, mortgages, energy, and maintenance.

Even those who have paid off their mortgages and appear to be house-rich may be cash-poor because they live on fixed incomes and cannot afford modifications that could make their homes safer or more secure.

Older women are much more likely than men to have borrowed against their equity with reverse mortgages because they need additional funds for living costs.

Women also live in older housing than men and thus tend to have more problems with plumbing, heating, and maintenance.

Finally, nearly one-third of women who are homeless are over the age of 50.

To help solve these problems, the Older Women's League points out the need to offer incentives for investors to acquire, rehabilitate, and develop affordable rental housing, and to create more opportunities for home ownership. It also calls for increased funding for federally assisted housing programs.

The group recommends changing zoning laws and building codes to encourage adaptable housing such as shared housing and accessory apartments in single-family homes, which can be rented to a relative or tenant. In addition, the league says, federal programs that assist people with home repairs should be enforced and expanded.

Instead of thinking of housing as merely "bricks and mortar," the league wants to expand the definition to include supportive social services that allow older women to remain in their homes, avoiding institutionalization. These include home-delivered meals and homemaker services.

A roof over one's head constitutes a basic necessity, along with food and clothing. Affordable housing carries with it the promise of helping people maintain dignity and independence.

For many older women, that is the best gift they could receive - on Mother's Day or any other day.

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