Nearly 400,000 Philadelphians (24% of the population) are over the age of 55 and many are in need of help. 120,000 live below the poverty line, 250,000 have one or more disability, and 243,000 live alone. Starting in 1817, and through the next two centuries, the Ralston Center did their part to help older Philadelphians. Today, The Sarah Ralston Foundation (SRF) continues that legacy. Twice yearly, SRF provides funding, in the form of grants, to nonprofit organizations that specifically serve vulnerable older adults in Philadelphia County. The grants that are awarded each spring are designated toward an organization’s general operating expenses.
In the spring of 2023, SRF awarded General Operating Support Grants to twenty-eight organizations who help underserved older Philadelphians in a variety of ways. Several of the nonprofits that received funding provide critical housing support to seniors in one of two ways. The first addresses the housing shortage and focuses on building and maintaining new housing for seniors who are in need of a place to live. The second model for housing support focuses on upgrading and repairing existing homes, many of which are older dwellings that can overwhelm elderly homeowners. Of the 298,000 homes where a senior is the head of the household in Philadelphia, 69% were built prior to 1960.
Lynette Killen, Executive Director of the Sarah Ralston Foundation, explained why the housing issue is so central to the quality of life for seniors: “We provide funding to organizations that focus on both securing senior housing for our vulnerable aging population, and to organizations that help current senior homeowners who are aging in place with costly home repairs,” she said. “The option of living in senior housing provides much needed socialization for elder Philadelphians with peers who are in the same age group. The option of assisting with home repair and upgrades, allows senior homeowners to safely age in place in their neighborhood, where demographics vary, but existing social relationships are preserved. Both approaches are equally important from a quality of life standpoint, and both are necessary to help ensure seniors enjoy the peace of mind that comes from having a secure housing situation.”
Federation Housing, Urban Resources and Development (URDC) and Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP) are three of the spring 2023 SRF grant recipients that focus on the increasingly important issue of housing for Philadelphia’s elders. Federation Housing works to provide housing for those seniors that need it, whereas URDC and RTP offer home repair/upgrade programs to elders who currently own homes throughout the city but need help maintaining their properties.
Federation Housing is a nonprofit that operates on three tiers: property management, supportive services and programming, and real estate development. Nearly 1,500 residents aged 62 and older (with an average age of 79) currently reside in Federation Housing properties. With an average annual income under $15,000 per year, Federation Housing residents who might not otherwise have the means to afford one are provided a stable living situation for older Philadelphians. They can age in place, with dignity.
Shoshana Bannett is the Director of Real Estate Development for Federation Housing. She explained the tremendous lengths to which the organization goes to meet the needs of their residents. “The supportive services and programming includes case management, meal programming, transportation services, chaplaincy and a reimbursement program for residents who encounter unforeseen medical or other life expenses and require financial assistance,” she said. We also seek out partnerships and programs that benefit resident overall wellbeing – intergenerational programming, meal programs, and other one-time and recurring events and opportunities for residents. All of these programs are offered to our residents free of charge or at a significantly reduced cost.”
In addition to managing their current inventory of properties, Federation Housing is also a property developer actively seeking out new projects. The nonprofit has thousands of people on their waiting lists and the need for affordable, safe, high-quality housing grows with each passing year. They are always seeking out new development opportunities in the greater Philadelphia region in order to add to their available units and meet the needs of an expanding aging population. For questions and answers with Shoshana Bannett about Federation Housing, click here.
Urban Resources and Development Corporation (URDC) is a nonprofit that is managed by 12 congregations in Northwest Philadelphia. They offer neighborhood revitalization and home repair services through two different programs: The first is their owner-occupied repair program that assists senior and low-income homeowners in getting the necessary repairs to their home. They provide a number of options to provide assistance. Low interest loans available through the city whereby UDC guides the homeowner through the application process. The City of Philadelphia will loan up to $20K to low-income seniors who qualify. Then URDC works with the homeowner to secure the necessary contractors. URDC can also provide an outright grant for home repairs. “There is a requirement that the homeowner pay for at least some part of the repair themselves, even if it’s just $20” said Joseph Waldo, Executive Director of URDC, “But if there’s a situation where someone can’t afford anything, we’ll find more creative ways to help.” URDC also organizes Volunteer Days where they bring in helpers with basic skill sets and organize them to work on a home. Under the supervision of URDC, volunteers are provided with the necessary materials to tackle projects such as landscaping and painting. “At our last Volunteer Day, we managed repairs that were worth over $9,000,” Waldo noted. 86% of URDC clients are over 55, and 98% are low-income.
URDC’s second program is called Home Strong.It is an innovative program aimed at senior homeowners that addresses the issue of intergenerational wealth transfer in communities of color in northwest Philadelphia. In order to qualify for Home Strong, senior clients must participate in four seminars on topics ranging from basic home maintenance to transferring a deed to heirs. A client who attends all four seminars qualifies for $2,000 toward home repairs. The seminars also serve as opportunities for healthy socializing. “One pleasant surprise of the seminars is that people in similar situations are meeting each other,” said Deacon Troy Boyd, of Canaan Baptist Church and Board President for URDC. “Many seniors are socially isolated and this allows them to engage and ask each other questions. It’s really powerful.”
Through these URDC programs, homeowners have access to vetted contractors that are mostly minority-owned. Joseph Waldo pointed out, “About 50% of seniors have been scammed by unscrupulous contractors at some point. Because we are run by 12 congregations, homeowners know they can trust us and our vetted contractors. Many are willing to pay for it, they just don’t want to get ripped off.”
When asked to share a UDRC client experience, Joseph Waldo offered, “We had a situation with two sisters in their 80’s. Neither toilet in the home worked and for four months they were lugging buckets of water up the stairs in order to flush. They mentioned this to their pastor who connected them with URDC.” Deacon Boyd added, “It was a $1,000 repair that was transformative. They not only have a home with operating toilets, but they feel that someone cares enough to help. The sisters are now helping to spread the word about URDC.”
Rebuilding Together, Philadelphia (RTP), is an SRF grant recipient that provides critical home repairs on roughly 125 homes per year. In the tradition of a classic “barn raising,” three times a year they conduct a “Block Build.” These events bring 100-200 volunteers, neighbors, and homeowners together to repair 10-12 homes on a block in a neighborhood of focus. 45% of these homeowners are 65 and older, 60% are Black and 25% are Latino. Many grew up in these homes and need critical repairs to continue living safely there with the hope that, when the time comes, they can pass it down to the next generation. The average cost of repairs made in each home is $14,000. “We work with our community partners to identify income-eligible homeowners,” said Kelly Guajardo, Communications Manager for RTP. “Beyond the repairs, we provide homeowners with workshops on basic home maintenance, finances and budgeting, as well as training on any occupational therapy or aging in place modifications we make in their homes.” RTP funds their home repair efforts through a variety of diverse sources that range from State and Federal grants, HUD programming, Foundation partners, and individual donors.
Once a homeowner’s application is approved, the process begins with a site visit and inspection by an RTP staff member who evaluates each home based on 25 Health and Safety Goals to guide the design of repairs. Once the assessment is complete, RTP staff go over their recommendations with the homeowner before the repairs begin. If it’s a major repair, such as a roof that needs replacing, it is done through a collaboration with subcontractors or city partners. Since 1988, RTP has repaired over 2,100 houses in Philadelphia. “At its core, our work is about so much more than just repairing physical structures—it’s about believing housing is a human right and repairing some of the harm of racial and economic injustice,” Guajardo said.
The housing challenges that vulnerable seniors face each day is an issue that cuts to the core of a person’s existence, one that requires serious attention. SRF’s Executive Director, Lynette Killen, summed it up: “The Sarah Ralston Foundation is proud to support these three nonprofits as they focus on issues related to housing support for Philadelphia’s underserved elderly population. Rising costs of building materials and escalating home prices have increased housing insecurity citywide. For many of our seniors, it’s the difference between having a home, or not. For those that do, it can be the difference between making a necessary repair or worsening damage. Some are forced to live with a leaky roof, or go without a kitchen, or proper flooring. With the elderly population in Philadelphia County on the rise, these are issues that aren’t going away anytime soon.”
For more information, visit www.sarahralstonfoundation.org.