“How many people in the room consider their home a safe and affordable place to live?” I asked, and not one person raised a hand.
I was at the B. S. Ricks Memorial Library, in Yazoo City, Miss., conducting a focus group meeting with senior residents. Yazoo City (population 11,403) is strikingly rural, with dirt roads and a small commercial area. Working with Linda Smith, executive director of the Esther Stewart Buford (ESB) Foundation, we arranged to meet with 15 area seniors in December 2011. Among the seniors were two local aldermen and the former city mayor. The conversation focused on the condition of their homes and the services they would like to see in their community.
The people who spoke had a variety of perspectives, but everyone agreed that their homes were not safe and affordable. Some were renting. Another owned his home—but the roof and floors were falling in. A USDA Section 504 grant (maximum $7,500) would not be enough to fix it. One woman was in a rent-to-own situation that many thought was predatory. No one lived in publicly assisted housing.
All the seniors also agreed that the reason they stay in these unsafe circumstances is because there is nowhere else to go. “The waiting list for public housing is so long that you can’t even get on it,” they said. Linda Smith added, “There is a scarcity of quality affordable housing in Yazoo County for low to very low income families. Most of them are living in dilapidated rental housing. Often our elderly are on a waiting list for years before they are blessed with a senior apartment.” Smith committed the ESB Foundation to work with the seniors to build or repair their homes.
The seniors, when asked about other services or needs they might require, said a community center was an immediate need. One focus group participant remembered when tornados went through their town in April and November of 2010, “the sirens worked fine, but there was no place for us to go to be safe. A community center could serve as a storm shelter and also be a place where local seniors could take classes,” she added.
Six months later, there is progress. I spoke with Linda Smith and she was proud to report that the ESB Foundation was working with a number of the participants of the focus group. One elderly couple with severe health concerns were relocated from a home with dilapidated floors and roof falling in to a safe and affordable senior apartment. Smith said, “They were blessed because a senior apartment became available.”
Another gentleman, whose home was also beyond repair, qualified for ESB Foundation’s self-help housing program to build a new home. His house will be built with support from HUD’s Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP); USDA Rural Development’s self-help housing program and a Section 502 mortgage; and the Housing Assistance Council. Smith also reported that they have begun construction for four senior apartments, using funds from HUD’s Rural Housing and Economic Development program and SHOP. In fact, they expect to begin pouring the foundation next week.
Smith emphasized ESB Foundation’s commitment to try to locate funding to provide quality housing for the elderly (rental and homeownership). She said, “The number of elderly seniors grows annually and quality housing numbers do not meet their needs at the present.” I would add though that it is important to support the people and organizations, like Linda Smith and the ESB Foundation, who are working to provide it. They just need enough resources to meet the need, one person at a time.