a younger adult helps and an older person with a cane

Honor thy parents by fighting for S.F. affordable housing

As a chaplain, I counsel those sick in body or spirit and try to put myself, as the saying goes, in the other person’s shoes. But when I climb the steps to Evdokia’s third-floor walk-up in San Francisco’s Richmond District, I want to take my shoes off and rest my feet.

Evdokia has Parkinson’s disease. She’s a Russian Jewish émigré who came to this country when she was 60. Now she’s 95. She can no longer go up and down her stairs without assistance, and every step is painful.

A pianist who taught music and gave piano lessons to earn a living, Evdokia plays the piano in the Russian Center every chance she gets. Days she has to stay in her apartment without going out, she feels as if she’s in a prison. She’s already waited for years to find a new apartment. What will happen when there’s no longer anyone to help her down the stairs?

San Francisco’s social service agencies help place low-income residents in affordable housing, but there is a shortage of affordable housing for residents like Evdokia. Her plight is common in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s population age 60 and older has grown 18 percent in the last 12 years, compared with the city’s overall population growth of 4 percent during that time. Seniors currently number approximately 161,777, but that number is projected to rise to about a 250,000, when it will comprise approximately one-quarter of the city’s population by 2030.

This is hardly a wealthy population. About 38 percent of seniors live below or just above the federal poverty level. A single senior’s median annual income is about $22,000 in San Francisco.

Housing continues to be the most overarching, urgent challenge facing seniors.

Yet the cost to live in the city is staggering. The median market rate to rent a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is around $40,800 annually, which in other areas of the country would be enough to qualify for a mortgage and buy a house. About half of San Francisco’s seniors are renters who will face great odds finding new housing if they were to lose their current home.

There are 172,000 rent-controlled units in San Francisco, 6,300 public housing units and 16,000 affordable-housing units. There’s a shortage of 40,845 homes affordable to San Francisco County’s extremely low-income and very low-income households, according to a 2014 California Housing Partnership Corporation report. Much of the city’s housing supply is old and inaccessible to wheelchair-users or those with difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

If Evdokia can’t get down her stairs, she won’t be able to get out of her apartment. The result will be isolation and potential loneliness.

“Housing continues to be the most overarching, urgent challenge facing seniors,” according to a 2015 report prepared by San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services.

SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, recommends several measures to increase the supply of affordable housing. Its recommendations include protecting existing rent-controlled units, reinvesting in public housing and doubling the amount of subsidized affordable housing.

Jewish law commands us to honor our parents. Evdokia could be any one of our mothers. Her lifeline is playing the piano at the Russian Center. Alone in her apartment, her world is shrinking. With nowhere to move, she will soon be trapped and it will almost certainly impact her health. We need to develop more affordable housing in San Francisco to connect seniors — and others — with life.

Susan Moldaw
Susan Moldaw

Susan Moldaw is a gerontologist and writer living in San Francisco.