Vicki Been, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development and former Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Preservation, speaks at a Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum on Sept. 10 (Megan Conn)

Three years after its introduction, a city program aimed at incentivizing real estate developers to build more affordable apartments for seniors has yet to generate any new units. And even if it does, both industry insiders and community advocates acknowledge the apartments will be priced out of reach for the poorest seniors.

Under its original name, Affordable Independent Residences for Seniors or AIRS, developers were told they could qualify to build larger buildings by making 20% of the units accessible to seniors with incomes of $30,000 to $45,000 per year, or 40% to 60% of the area median income (AMI). But when the Department of Housing and Preservation Development finalized the program requirements this past July, they slashed the requirement for affordability to 80% of AMI across the board, or an individual income of up to $60,000 per year.

“They gave up on that one, apparently,” said Alvin Schein, a lawyer at the real estate development law firm Seiden & Schein. “I guess they were advised by counsel that they could not require a low rent.”

The change means that any apartments eventually developed under the program, now called Privately Financed Affordable Senior Housing (PFASH), will likely be out of reach for more than 300,000 senior-headed households whose primary source of income – 75% or more – is social security. The average annual social security benefit is less than $18,000 in New York, placing singles in this group at just over 30% of area median income and couples below 60% of AMI.

New York’s oldest residents have been some of the hardest hit by skyrocketing rents: out of 1.1 million seniors, a third are poor and two-thirds of those that rent are rent-burdened. Though Mayor de Blasio has made affordable housing his signature initiative, his administration’s efforts have produced fewer than 600 new affordable units for seniors per year, on average. Due to the higher income eligibility, the PFASH program is unlikely to increase the number of affordable units for seniors; the Department of Housing and Preservation Development did not provide comment.

“[PFASH] is not for everybody, it’s for a certain class of tenants,” said Schein. “That’s not in the lower strata of being poor. There already are other programs for poor older people.”

However, data shows that the number of units being created by existing programs is dwarfed by the need among low-income seniors. LiveOn NY, a nonprofit that serves older adults, did a study that found more than 200,000 seniors are currently on a waiting list for affordable housing in the city, and the number is still growing. Seniors can’t put down their name until they turn 62, and most end up waiting seven to ten years before getting an apartment.

When apartments for low-income seniors do open up, the demand is crushing. Before the Frances Goldin Senior Apartments opened on Delancey St. last year, the building received more than 650 applications for each of its 99 low-income units.

According to Katelyn Andrews, director of public policy at LiveOn NY, the bar for assessing the impact of de Blasio’s work on senior housing is admittedly low.

“What’s important is that previously, no program existed specific to seniors on the city level, so this level of production is an advancement,” Andrews said. “Certainly, the need is greater than what will be able to be accomplished by this initiative alone.”

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