March 19, 2020

Coronavirus Poses Serious Risk to Almost 2.5 Million Low-Income Seniors in Subsidized Housing

Two senior residents talking in lobby

While the nation focuses on the risk that the deadly coronavirus poses to seniors in nursing homes and cruise ships, there’s another population of extremely vulnerable people that have been largely ignored. Our nation’s subsidized housing is home to almost 2.5 million people age 62 and older with low incomes. Many live in large, multifamily buildings where the risk of contagion is potentially high. These seniors often have underlying health conditions. Emerging data show that Americans of all ages may be hospitalized with severe complications, but this constellation of factors – close living quarters, advanced age, low income and poor health – puts this population at substantial risk for contracting and potentially dying from COVID-19.

In the U.S. today, the most widespread form of subsidized housing is Low-Income Housing Tax Credit properties (LIHTC). Across all states, on average, one in three (31 percent) LIHTC households have a member over the age of 621. In the map below, you can see extremely highest concentration of seniors living in LIHTC properties, particularly in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Nevada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Illinois. In these 12 states, nearly half of LIHTC households have a family member over the age of 62.  

There were approximately 2.47 million occupied LIHTC units in the U.S. for which we know demographic information, as of 2015.2 Assuming 31 percent of these households have at least one member over the age of 62, we estimate 770,000 vulnerable low-income seniors live in LIHTC properties. And it is likely these population estimates are conservative – data quality is inconsistent across states and more units have been built since these data were collected.

Low-income seniors also live in properties subsidized through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Among all HUD subsidized housing programs, 37 percent are at-risk households, because either the head of household or their spouse is over age 62. Four percent of these households are considered extremely “high risk” because either the head of household or their spouse is over the age of 853.  Based on these figures, we estimate almost 1.7 million households in HUD programs are at risk. Of these, 18 percent are in public housing and 7 percent are in HUD Section 202 buildings, which exclusively house low-income seniors. 

Taken together, these estimates suggest that almost 2.5 million seniors living in subsidized housing are extremely vulnerable to the most serious effects of the coronavirus.4 Most face compounding risk factors, which makes them more suspectable to exposure, unchecked transmission and potential fatality. 

We are just beginning to see the havoc that the coronavirus will wreak. Much attention has been paid to the risk faced by nursing home patients. The coronavirus compounds the disparities and health risks already faced by low-income seniors. It is vitally important that policymakers and leaders recognize the unique circumstances facing those seniors living in subsidized housing and take aggressive steps to mitigate the potentially devastating effect on some of the most vulnerable among us.

Enterprise analysis of data published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in "Understanding Whom the LIHTC Serves, Data on Tenants in LIHTC Units as of December 31, 2015" report. Published March 2018.
Assuming a 4 percent national average vacancy rate.
Enterprise analysis of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Picture of Subsidized Households 2019 data. Includes the following HUD Programs: Public Housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, Mod Rehab, Project Based Section 8, S236/BMIR, 202/PRAC, and RentSup/RAP. These are conservative estimates, because they may not count other senior household members besides the head of household or their spouse.
It is possible that some households may be double-counted, as some LIHTC tenants also may receive other forms of HUD subsidies. However, these overall estimates are likely conservative, due to limited data available from many states.


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