2018 MinKwon Center Senior Housing Report
Throughout the summer of 2018, Minkwon staff and volunteers conducted a series of focus groups with New York City monolingual Korean-speaking, low-income senior residents regarding their experience applying for public senior housing. Four focus groups that comprised of 3-4 participants each were conducted over the course of approximately 1.5 hours for each group. The focus group’s findings complement a 2017 quantitative survey that Minkwon conducted with 200 senior Korean-American Queens residents. We designed these semi-structured, qualitative focus groups in the interest of providing a more human, three-dimensional portrait of some of the struggles low-income seniors face in applying for senior public housing in New York City than can be illuminated by numerical data alone.
MinKwon came to identify senior public housing as one of its main priorities due to the sheer prevalence of housing-related requests for assistance amongst its elderly community members. Senior constituents expressed to Minkwon staff a deep sense of confusion and frustration with what they experienced as a highly inconsistent and opaque process in applying for public housing. Limited capacity prevents MinKwon from being able to provide direct assistance with the senior housing applications. We thus decided to initiate a Senior Housing Campaign as a way to seek more comprehensive solutions for the plethora of issues our elderly members face.
This report presents the combined findings of the focus groups and quantitative surveys discussed above. Its goal is to present a human portrait of those Korean American low-income seniors who face profound struggles due to their inability to access public housing, in order to motivate would-be advocates and public officials to take more meaningful action.
Background on Korean American Senior Community in NYC
Key demographic data regarding the general growth of Korean American communities in NYC, as well as poverty and limited English-proficiency rates among NYC-based Korean American seniors provide necessary background for understanding the issues raised by seniors who participated in our study. The following is based on a 2013 Asian American Federation study that analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 and 2009-2011 American Community Survey:
Growth of NYC’s Korean American Population: New York City’s Korean American population grew 11% between 2008-2011. In this same period, while the total immigrant population in NYC declined by 1%, the Korean immigrant population grew 8%. This growth made Korean Americans the third largest Asian ethnic group in the city.
NYC’s Korean American Seniors: Poverty Rates: At approximately 20%, general poverty rates among Korean Americans are consistent with that of the rest of NYC. Yet Korean American seniors suffer from a slightly higher 25% poverty rate. This compares to an 18% rate for all senior New Yorkers.
Limited English Proficiency: Half of NYC’s Korean American population is Limited English Proficient (LEP). Yet while the citywide LEP average for all seniors is just 33%, it is a marked 94% for Korean American seniors.
The general growth of Korean American communities, combined with particularly high rates of poverty and limited english proficiency for Korean American seniors, creates a greater need for in-language services that cater to the housing needs of low-income Korean-speaking senior communities. Rigorous reports published by organizations like Make the Road New York and NY Immigration Coalition (2010), and the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV 2015) have thoroughly addressed concerns that arise from NYCHA-related language access issues. These vital reports have shown that while most Asian languages are underrepresented in NYCHA’s language access campaigns, Korean Americans often cite the greatest difficulty of all Asian American groups in accessing in-language services at city agencies (Make the Road and NYIC 2010). A 2015 CAAAV report found that among other issues, NYCHA does not efficiently track language requests from LEPs, that Asian LEPs were often not provided with language identification cards, and that only 1 in 5 of their respondents were even aware of the city’s obligation to provide translation services in the city’s top-six spoken languages (pursuant to Mayor Bloomberg’s 2008 Executive Order 120).
Given the comprehensiveness of these previous reports, we will focus less on language access issues here (though translation concerns certainly underline other issues we will discuss). Further, as our focus groups and surveys revealed, language access is but one of many issues that seniors face when applying for low-income housing. 40% of seniors who participated in the quantitative survey identified the long waiting period as the area where the process of applying for senior housing could be most improved. Twenty two percent identified other procedural issues as the greatest point of concern.
Analysis of Focus Group and Survey Findings
Seniors articulated three central areas of concern regarding their experience applying for public senior housing in New York City: wait times, lack of transparency, and rent prices. Those participants who had successfully entered public senior housing identified two primary issues with their housing: isolation and repairs. In what follows, we will use both our qualitative and quantitative data to better illuminate these concerns. We will be using pseudonyms as we tell the individual stories of focus group participants in order to protect their identities.
Wait Times and Lack of Transparency in Application Process
As mentioned above, a full 40% of the 200 seniors who participated in our survey identified long waiting times as their biggest area of concern. The greatest percentage of those surveyed waited more than 3 years to receive a response (33%). 19% waited over six years, while just 7% received a reply within a year. Seniors who participated in the focus groups reported that they were very confused as to how to interpret the waiting number they received. They had no sense of how many years or months they would have to wait, or what circumstances and actions might further delay their placement. If several months or years elapsed without receiving any follow-up from the city, they were confused about what responsibilities they had to repeatedly remind the city that they continued waiting to be placed. Due to the lack of a centralized system that is readily accessible for monolingual Korean speakers who do not have access to computers or knowledge of how to use them, seniors were at a loss as to how to follow-up on the status of their applications. Further, many were not aware that when they moved, they were required to update their senior housing application to reflect their change of address. This often resulted in their applications being cancelled without their knowledge.
Seniors with the economic means and social connections to resources could, for a per-application fee, rely on the help of private Korean-speaking brokers to help them with their initial applications and subsequent follow-up. Through these brokers, seniors followed-up on their application via phone call every six months, and also sent yearly letters to inform the city that they were still waiting to be placed in senior housing. Still, many waited years for a response. Further, while many of these brokers employ a social services model and ask a modest fee for help with applications (around $20 per application), there are several unscrupulous agents who attempt to take advantage of seniors desperately seeking affordable housing. Ms. Shin, a focus group participant, reported that one such broker made false claims of being able to “expedite” her senior housing application for a fee of $2,000. Fortunately, she had the wherewithal to reject the offer, but she saw many others fall prey to such scams.
Finally, those seniors who lacked the means to pay out of pocket to brokers found themselves entirely lost as to how to navigate the application process and grew hopeless after waiting for years without ever receiving any follow-up from the city. Several experiences with city employees who grew frustrated with senior applicants for not being able to communicate in English further discouraged seniors from pursuing their applications.
Ms.Han’s story illuminates some of the issues presented above. Ms. Han currently lives in an affordable housing unit with a roommate. Her husband returned to Korea several years ago because the couple could not afford both of their medical bills and other living expenses in the U.S. Ms. Han’s husband is waiting to return to the U.S. until his wife’s application for a one-bedroom public senior housing rental goes through. Market-rate one bedroom apartments are too high for them to afford, so the couple remains separated. Ten years has passed since Ms. Han submitted her first senior housing application. Upon applying, she received a waiting number but she had no idea what it meant. Ms. Han has been living at the same address throughout the entire time her application has been pending, and she has been paying a private housing attorney a handsome fee to help her call NYCHA every six months, and to write a yearly letter to check on the status of her application. She does this work diligently, yet she has never received a response.
Even for seniors who are able to access “affordable housing” properties, but not Section 202 senior housing (as in Ms. Han’s case), the rent is often too high for them to afford. Average Median Income (AMI) for the New York City Metro Area is a whopping $73,100. Given that affordable housing rates in the city are based on this income, monthly rent expectations far exceed what many low-income seniors can actually pay. Thus, grand swaths of low-income seniors relying on social security benefits cannot afford the so-called affordable housing. 63% of the 200 senior residents Minkwon surveyed make less than $25,000 a year, with 25% of those surveyed making less than $10,000 a year. Further, those low-income seniors surveyed who are unable to access senior-specific public housing often paid more than 50% of their monthly income in rent expenditure. Even seniors who receive SCRIE benefits indicated that both market-rate and affordable housing units were too pricey for them to afford. Seniors who successfully enter Section 202 senior housing are expected to pay 30% of monthly income (independently of the AMI), making their monthly budgeting much more viable. Yet, as discussed above, wait times to enter Section 202 housing are often extremely long. Brief portraits of two seniors who have been unable to be placed in Section 202 housing illustrate these concerns.
At $963 a month, Mr. Park’s rent expenditure takes up 80% of his total income. Mr. Park suffers from severe diabetes, and even with the help of both Medicare and Medicaid, he is unable to cover all of his living expenses. He thus speaks with a great sense of shame and embarrassment as he talks about having to rely on financial help from his younger siblings in order to continue to be able to stay in his apartment. Due to these financial difficulties, Mr. Park is considering returning to Korea soon. This despite the fact that he is a citizen and has been living in the U.S. for 14 years.
Unlike Mr. Park, Ms. Seon is not so lucky to have family to rely upon to help her with her financial troubles. Currently Ms. Seon can afford her rent because she pays $430 a month living in a two bedroom apartment with a couple who lives in the first bedroom, and a roommate who lives with her in the second bedroom. However, the living situation is tenuous, and if she were to lose her spot in the apartment, she simply could not afford more than what she pays now. Entering senior housing would provide Ms. Seon with a more stable living situation and give her some peace of mind. Yet she has been unsuccessful after applying to six different residences and waiting several years. Tragically, Ms. Seon expressed that even in her old age, she fears getting sick because she has no family members who could help her with rent if she had to stop working. “I left my emergency contact information on the housing application empty,” Ms. Seon said, “because I have no one.”
Repairs and Isolation
Of the seniors we interviewed who had been successful in their applications for senior housing, several reported challenges related to repairs and the physical locations of the housing units to which they were assigned. Several focus group participants lamented that the city does not fulfill its obligation (pursuant to the Warranty of Habitability as well as several other statutory provisions that govern housing standards) to conduct apartment repairs when old tenants move out and new ones move in. As such, many tenants reported that upon moving into their units, they were greeted by a variety of pests and ill-functioning amenities. Many other interviewees also reported frustration with the process for requesting repairs to building management. They reported not only having to follow up several times before receiving a response to requests, but also sensing frustration on the part of management with tenants who could not speak English.
Furthermore, many applicants were worried about being assigned housing in areas without accessible public transportation and proximity to Korean language senior daycare centers. Because most Korean senior applicants are monolingual Korean speakers, they rely on those senior centers to prevent isolation, and to seek help for meals and other vital tasks. Many daycare centers provide breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner – meals upon which low-income seniors rely to mitigate food costs. Not being able to access these centers easily because they live either far away from Korean neighborhoods, or because of insufficient public transportation, thus present important obstacles. Other interviewees talked about living in complexes in isolated areas with few to no restaurants, pharmacies, shopping centers, and doctors’ offices. Proximity to such services not only promotes ease of access to necessary health care services, but also helps seniors maintain an active and vital social life.
After five years of applying to low-income senior housing apartments, Ms. Lee was finally offered a spot at the Rose Hill Apartments in the Bronx. However, Ms. Lee quickly found that there were few to no Korean-speaking people in the area, let alone senior daycare centers that catered to Korean-speaking seniors. In order to get to her daycare center in Flushing, she would have to take the Q44 bus over two hours a day. Ms. Lee relies on the meals provided by her daycare in order to save money on food, especially given the Trump administration will cut monthly SNAP allotments soon. If she had to take a taxi to her Korean-speaking healthcare providers in case of an emergency, the cost would be over $100.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Minkwon applauds Mayor De Blasio’s October 31, 2017 announcement that his administration would be implementing a “Seniors First” initiative. This initiative promises a 40% increase in senior housing units before 2040. The administration has also committed to constructing or preserving 30,000 more senior homes by 2026. Yet as the survey and focus group data included here suggest, increasing the quantity of homes is only a piece of the puzzle. Affordability, quality, location, and streamlining the process by which LEP seniors apply for housing are equally important areas of concern. For this reason, Minkwon staff and community members have developed a list of recommendations they hope public officials will consider as they attempt to mitigate the low-income senior housing crisis the city currently faces. Those recommendations are as follows:
1. Create one centralized database by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) that identifies all NYC senior housing properties and that is available online and through published guides.
We make this recommendation based on the central database that exists for NYC affordable housing that makes it easy for applicants to search for properties in their area, find information on available units, and apply to a specific property. Currently, no such database exists for senior housing, and seniors are left on their own to search and find properties with limited information. Providing seniors the resource to look for options in their area and based on their specific needs and preferences enables them to make a more educated and confident decision to apply. A database can be created based on the model built for NYC affordable housing, and guides should be published in multiple languages and updated every six to twelve months.
2. Create one new, standardized senior housing application in multiple languages that HPD mandates to all senior housing properties and make it available in public spaces such as libraries and community centers.
Currently, senior housing applications are individualized to specific senior housing properties, and we have received reports of seniors becoming confused and applying for certain properties with the wrong application form. Instead of causing unnecessary hassle or paperwork, simplify this process by issuing one official application. Once the application is released, create mass public awareness of the new version and set a timeline to retire the use of all previous versions. The new version should have checkboxes, larger font and other formatting to make it easier to fill out. Create one new simple, standardized complaint form in multiple languages that senior applicants can fill out to report problems with the application process and grievances against individual properties and management companies.
3. Establish new regulation by HPD requiring all senior housing properties to utilize NYC translation and interpretation services for senior applicants and tenants on request.
Korean and LEP seniors are currently deprived the same opportunity and attention given to English-fluent seniors by not enforcing proper language support, resulting in confusion, intimidation and possible discrimination by senior housing management. Given how city translation and interpretation services already exist for many public benefit programs in this city (including NYC affordable housing), senior housing projects need to adopt the same standard and not leave LEP seniors behind. Partner with 311 and create a hotline option in multiple languages for seniors to receive guidance on how to apply and check their application status over the phone. Also, produce multilingual written guides to be distributed at public places such as libraries and community centers.
Asian American Federation. “Profile of New York City’s Korean Americans: 2013 Edition.” 2013. http://www.aafny.org/cic/briefs/korean2013.pdf
Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. “No Access: The Need For Improved Language Assistance Services for Limited English Proficient Tenants of the New York City Housing Authority.” 2015. https://caaav.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/CAAAV-full-housing-report-v11-HIGH-RES.pdf
Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition. “Still Lost In Translation: City Agencies’ Compliance with Local Law 73 and Executive Order 120: Examining Progress and Work Still to be Done.” July, 2010. http://www.thenyic.org/sites/default/files/Still_Lost_in_Translation_7_7_10_0.pdf