After a year of bouncing around different homeless shelters, Ellen Rollins is getting ready to move out of interim housing and into a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose. But the move has her anxious and uncertain about managing her future.

Her prospective apartment is market rate and will be covered for 10 months by Santa Clara County’s housing voucher program. But after that, Rollins is responsible for the $2,500-plus in monthly rent. She doesn’t know how she’ll make that work. Plus, her health is failing and she needs supportive care.

“I’ll be 80 years old in January. I’ve had four falls. Now they tell me I have heart issues. I need to live in stable place with a live-in caretaker,” she told San Jose Spotlight.

Rollins is a retired nurse. She lost her housing in July 2021 after her paraplegic daughter passed away. Rollins was her live-in caretaker, but her name wasn’t on the lease. When her daughter passed, she was forced to leave and could not find an affordable apartment.

About 40 percent of Santa Clara County’s homeless are senior citizens aged 55 year or older, according to a 2019 point-in-time count, the most recent data available.

San Jose has 44 affordable housing complexes, with about 4,000 residences specifically for senior citizens. But there are thousands of seniors who are homeless or close to it. San Jose needs tens of thousands of more senior affordable housing units to meet the demand, said Geoffrey Morgan, president and CEO of First Community Housing, a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing in the Bay Area.

“In the Silicon Valley, by far the fastest growing population of unhoused people is seniors,” Morgan told San Jose Spotlight. “It’s referred to as a silver tsunami.”

Morgan said the housing crisis—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to drive up rent and exhaust local safety nets, causing more seniors to fall into homelessness, and they can’t get out. They don’t have enough income or savings to afford the expensive rents.

“A lot of the seniors just did not have a safety net. They worked all their lives, but they didn’t anticipate the economy or didn’t have enough saved for an emergency or health problem,” Morgan said. “About one-third of them still work to make ends meet at the age of 60, 70, even 80 when they shouldn’t be working any more. We should be embarrassed about this and we should be trying to build more.”

Rollins is a prime example of this dilemma. She wants to move into affordable senior housing, but there aren’t any openings. She cannot afford to live elsewhere without significant financial assistance.

“It’s just horrendous,” said Rollins, who is a commissioner for the Council on Aging in Santa Clara County. “Can you believe that I have it easier than so many others? Only because I was a VA nurse. I know how to navigate county and government programs to get assistance. Most people, especially seniors, don’t.”

Affordable senior complexes like the Leigh Avenue Senior Apartments, managed by First Community Housing, are at capacity with a waitlist of up to three to four years, Morgan told San Jose Spotlight.

“The waitlists seem endless, and it’s frustrating because the volume of people becoming unhoused is growing,” Morgan said. “So the pace of it is such where we’re not seeing a change, but believe me, it would be far worse (without what’s available).”

Hopeful tides 

In San Jose, three new affordable housing sites for seniors will open in the next few months and add about 500 units to the city’s senior housing stock. Housing will be rent-restricted and specifically allocated for those 55 years and older, starting around $1,500.

The 147-unit Blossom Hill Seniors site is expected to be completed in spring 2023. Applications will be accepted in late 2022 or early 2023, according to Jeff Scott, spokesperson for the city’s housing department. Mesa Terrace will have 23 units for seniors and 23 for younger residents. That site is currently accepting applications.

Virginia Street Studios senior apartment complex is now accepting applications for its 301 residences that will open this winter. Rents for the all-studio community start at about $1,450 per month for those 55 and older who meet the income requirements, earning 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income for Santa Clara County—which is $58,950 to $70,740 annually for a one-person household and $67,400 to $80,800 for a two-person household.

The complex also boasts several amenities, including a community room, fitness room, a picnic area with barbecues and a rooftop deck with seating areas. Residents will be selected through a lottery system.

Victoria Critchfield, vice president of operations for Northern California for USA Properties, which operates several senior affordable housing sites including Virginia Street Studios, said having a rent restricted space for seniors is essential and the demand is clear.

“As we get older, incomes become more fixed. A lot of our residents are living off of Social Security, and they don’t have a lot of excess cash,” Critchfield told San Jose Spotlight. “That’s been exacerbated by COVID. Isolation had a negative impact on seniors, so being able to have spaces where they can be together and they can socialize is very important for their physical and mental health.

To date, Virginia Street Studios has about 20 applications, Critchfield said. She expects to see hundreds more in the coming months.

Rollins, who also served on the Santa Clara County Senior Care Commission for four years before being homeless, said the new sites are hopeful signs, but much more must be done.

“It is a drop in the bucket, but it’s the beginning of the drought,” Rollins said. “If it is happening to me, it is happening to a million more people.”

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