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Keeping city homes occupied should be a top priority

As America’s population ages and the cost of health care and related institutions continues to rise, it’s clearly most cost-effective for older Americans to remain as long as possible in their homes – “aging in place” is the official term. That poses special challenges, however, for cities with older housing stock like Buffalo, and for nonprofit organizations like ours that are working to address the challenges of our neighborhoods.

In Buffalo, the average age of a home is 95 years, which makes it especially difficult for seniors to take care of their homes, which are often larger, less energy-efficient and harder to maintain than those being built today. In addition, home values are typically 30 percent lower than they were 20 years ago, so access to equity for borrowing is also a struggle.

When an older occupant ends up leaving a property, the relatives who assume responsibility for it may well abandon it, knowing that it’s not cost-effective to maintain – particularly when the homeowner has not kept up with the necessary repairs to keep the home livable and prevent costly damage. That, in turn, poses greater problems for our neighborhoods, as once-inhabited homes become abandoned.

It is, therefore, time to focus on how best to support older residents in their homes as long as possible. Support for aging in place provides more time to develop effective strategies and incentives for adapting these older homes to current needs.

At the organizations that I lead – West Side & Black Rock-Riverside Neighborhood Housing Services – we administer programs that help keep older residents in their homes, thereby strengthening the neighborhoods. With funding from City Council members, for instance, we provide grants of up to $300 and deferred no-interest loans of up to $2,000 to seniors for small home repairs.

Those amounts may sound limited, but often a small repair can correct a problem that would otherwise grow to be a major one. And too often, the cost of that small repair is beyond reach, given other financial pressures.

West Side Neighborhood Housing Services funded a similar program in partnership with the Buffalo Urban League on the city’s East Side. It proved so popular that its $25,000 grant from NeighborWorks America, earmarked for such repairs, ran out in less than a year.

Even as the demand for these programs is clear, government is cutting back its resources. Federal funding of crucial housing programs has been cut significantly since fiscal year 2010: the HOME program by 48 percent, HUD housing counseling by 51 percent and Community Development Block Grants by 31 percent. Similarly, New York State government has cut its RESTORE program, which provides up to $5,000 for emergency home repairs for seniors.

The issue is not charity for older residents; the issue is how taxpayers can most cost-effectively afford the simultaneous challenges of the aging of our population, the rising cost of health care facilities and the impact that abandoned homes have on our neighborhoods. In the short term, the best solution is to keep these stop-gap programs fully funded. In the long term, the best solution is to develop a plan for reuse of our older housing stock.

Central to the success of these efforts is a broad public understanding of the importance of stable, affordable homes to our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation. That’s why our organization is so pleased to be in the forefront of a new movement called Home Matters ( It’s a national initiative that aims to unite Americans around the essential role that home plays as the bedrock for thriving lives, communities and a stronger nation.

The movement was launched in Washington, D.C., in March with participation from nearly 200 housing and community development organizations from across the country. Spearheading the launch was the National NeighborWorks Association, of which our organization is a member, with crucial support from Citi Community Development and Wells Fargo.

Joining the occasion were U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and a bipartisan group of members of Congress. They represented a broad political spectrum, and their collective presence underscored that Home Matters regardless of your political beliefs.

Home Matters to all of Buffalo’s neighborhoods, but a home must be occupied to play its crucial role in ensuring the vitality, health and safety of those neighborhoods. Keeping our homes occupied should be a top priority; an occupied home matters most of all.

Linda Chiarenza is executive director of West Side & Black Rock-Riverside Neighborhood Housing Services in Buffalo.