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Hillsborough's Growing Senior Population Needs More Affordable Housing

On a recent afternoon, 71-year-old Milton Malphus walked into the community room of his senior apartment building to get some lunch. Sporting a flat-rimmed hat, basketball sneakers and a T-shirt covered in pineapples, Malphus said he dresses as young as he feels: 17.

Malphus has been living at the Ella at Encore in downtown Tampa since the beginning of 2013, when it first opened as a public housing complex for seniors.

"I am on a fixed income for disability, a very minute amount of money,” he said. “I struggle to try and live on it – unbelievable, the task of trying to live off that much money."

Malphus knows he’s lucky: the demand for public housing for seniors in Tampa and Hillsborough County is already far greater than the supply.

With the 60-plus population expected to grow dramatically in the coming decades, housing officials are calling for action before the problem gets worse. That’s because people are living longer, a trend some experts call the “Silver Tsunami.”

Here in Hillsborough, state data projects that more than 100,000 more people aged 60 and older will call the county home by 2030.

So where are all these people going to live?

That question has Leroy Moore, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Tampa Housing Authority worried.

“It’s a seriously dire situation for elderly in Florida," he said.

Today, the agency has a little over 1,000 units of affordable housing for seniors:

  • The Ella at Encore: 160 units
  • The Reed at Encore: 158 units
  • J.L. Young Garden Apartments: 450 units
  • River Pines Apartments: 300 units
  • Palm Terrace (assisted-living facility) 74 beds

Moore said thousands of seniors are on waitlists for each of the agency’s developments, and those lists aren't taking new members.

“We close the waitlist because it gets too big to manage; it gives people who sign up for the waitlist that false sense of being served anytime reasonably soon,” he said.

For example, Moore said one of the newest senior developments, the 160-unit Ella, has more than 1,400 people waiting.

"We may have two, three or four vacancies a month, so maybe 30 or 40 per year,” he said. “So with 1,400 people on the waitlist, you know, you just can’t manage that volume."

And Moore said housing seniors is a different beast than housing families.

Most seniors are living on fixed incomes and dependent on sources such as Social Security. So there's little chance they will one day be able to afford a bigger, better place.

"Seniors are that population that typically move into assisted housing and they need that housing until they, you know, pass on," he said.

Credit Steve Madden for WUSF Public Media

The Ella at Encore defies some of the negative stereotypes that surround public housing for seniors.

It's clean, secure and includes the type of amenities one might find at a luxury development, like a rooftop pool, fitness center and community room that's bustling with seniors around lunchtime.

Credit Roberto Roldan / WUSF Public media
WUSF Public media
The Ella at Encore

Milton Malphus used to work as a manager at a McDonald’s in St. Petersburg until complications with his post-traumatic stress disorder forced him to go on disability. He said he receives less than $800 a month in payments and it’s his only source of income.

He said after paying for rent, his utility bills, food, gas and medication for his PTSD and injuries related to a recent fall, he has next to nothing left for himself.

“You can’t buy an extra shirt or that beautiful steak, so you do without those kind of things,” he said.

Malphus said he is certain he couldn't afford to live on his own were he not at a public housing community like the Ella, where all residents only pay 30 percent of their income in rent.

"Having this is one of the best things that could happen for me, especially at this time, going through what I'm going through medically," he said.

Credit Steve Madden for WUSF Public Media
State and federal data indicates a Social Security retiree in the Tampa Bay area can only afford to pay about $400 a month in rent. That makes affording a market rate apartment pretty much impossible.

Despite his own struggles, Malphus volunteers almost every day. On this particular afternoon, he was taking food from a meal at the community room to a friend who recently became homeless. Malphus said he sees first-hand how many others his age are less fortunate.

“There are a massive number that fall through the cracks,” he said.

Moore, with the Tampa Housing Authority, said he gets emails daily from people in desperate situations and knows he can't help everyone.

“Because a lot of the emails I get are from people who need it now, you know they don’t need it three years from now, they need it now,” he said.

Metropolitan Ministries is one of the groups Moore refers people to for emergency housing.

Christine Long, the chief programs officer at the nonprofit charity, said 75 percent of people coming in with housing needs are seniors on fixed incomes.

“I don’t think the Tampa community is really prepared for all of the affordable housing challenges we’re facing with the senior population and the growth in that population,” she said.

Ask 58 year-old Earlene Kelly of Tampa. She isn't quite there yet, but she's close. 

'I do not think the Tampa community is really prepared for all of the affordable housing challenges we are facing with the senior population and the growth in that population.' - Christine Long

Metropolitan Ministries is providing Kelly an apartment to live in temporarily until the end of the year. She lost her home after it was damaged during Hurricane Irma and has been waiting for available public housing ever since.

“It’s not easy when you’re 55+ being on a waiting list,” Kelly said.

Knowing how long it takes for units to become available, Kelly already put herself on waitlists for senior housing. She said she figures she will meet the age requirement of 62 by the time something opens up.

Retirement age became a bigger concern since Kelly’s financial crisis. The savings she put away for the future were wiped out. And even though Kelly has a masters’ degree, lately she can only find part-time work – at AARP, helping senior citizens find jobs.

"I never thought that I would fall into this situation, but it happened,” she said. “And I've just got to keep my head up and believe that things can turn around."

Kelly may have some more options soon. 

Construction is underway on the footprint of what was once Tampa's oldest public housing complex, the now-demolished North Boulevard Homes near Interstate-275 and the Hillsborough River.

The $350 million West River Redevelopment Plan includes a variety of residential and commercial projects that aim to revitalize West Tampa.

Moore said three buildings are fully funded so far, and the first two scheduled for construction are for senior housing.

First up is the Renaissance at West River, which will add 160 units to the Tampa Housing Authority’s stock of about 1,000 senior homes. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and agency officials broke ground on the project in May.

Credit Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
The vacant Mary Bethune High Rise Apartments will be renovated as part of the West River Redevelopment Plan.

Next will be the renovation of the vacant 150-unit Mary Bethune High Rise Apartments in West Tampa, an eight-story residential tower that housed seniors for decades.

Funding for the West River projects comes from a mix of Housing Authority funds, state tax credits and partnerships with private developers.

Moore said it’s an example of what can be done with the right resources.

"We've got the capacity to build more, develop more and house more seniors,” he said. “We need more funding to achieve more than what we already are achieving."

Waitlists for Tampa Housing Authority developments typically open six-to-nine months before a build is completed.

Moore said he expects the waitlist for the Renaissance to open this spring.

He also expects it will fill immediately.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.