Sarasota seniors worry as even affordable housing costs increase
On Monday and Thursday mornings, residents of Venetian Walk Senior Apartment Homes gather in the building’s dining room, sharing coffee and pastries along with bits of news and light-hearted gossip.
But at the end of May, residents met to discuss something far more serious – notices posted on their doors announcing an unexpected rent hike.
The $75 per month increase – on top of the usual $30 annual rise in monthly rent – sent many residents reeling. especially after waiting years for a coveted spot in one of the region’s few affordable buildings for seniors.
‘Where are we going to go?’
“It scares me that it’s going to keep increasing constantly,” said 73-year-old Art McLaughlin.
A retired director of security at a college in Pennsylvania, McLaughlin and his wife, Judith, now 75, moved to Venice a dozen years ago, settling first in the Bay Indies mobile home community before those lot rentals got too high.
On a waiting list for Venetian Walk for two years, the couple finally moved into their spacious two-bedroom unit four years ago – able to take advantage of daily activities and amenities, including a library, computer room, billiards and fitness centers.
But once the couple’s small retirement annuities ran out, the two were left with only their Social Security incomes to meet rising costs – including rent that has risen to $990 a month.
“If it keeps going up, we’ll just be treading water,” Art McLaughlin said.
Residents around the table consider themselves the lucky ones – “To leave here is cutting your throat,” one called out. Many rents in the Sarasota area are rising much more sharply, some by hundreds of dollars a month. Waiting lists for buildings like theirs or Section 8 vouchers are years-long – the area, advocates note, plagued for decades by a shortage in affordable housing.
Once middle-class, seniors here are turning to local food banks for help. Or getting rid of small luxuries, like cable.
The McLaughlins already have dropped their once-a-week date nights, said Judith, also retired from college security work as well as owning her own hair salon.
Still, the McLaughlins worry that it’s just a matter of time before they’re priced out.
“Where are we going to go?” asks Judith, Judith, echoing many increasingly desperate Sarasota-area seniors.
Not as much as it could have been
At Venetian Walk, the $75 rent hike – which is in addition to the standard $30 increase when leases are renewed – was initially higher, in some cases almost $100, before residents complained and the management company capped it at $75.
The increase came in the wake of the annual updates of the Area Median Income, or AMI, released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. AMI is used to determine eligibility and rent ceilings for various state and federal affordable housing programs – from Section 8 vouchers to complexes like Venetian Walk built with low-income housing tax credits.
The $75 increase sits well below the new allowable rent limits, the building’s management pointed out, and only affects the units in Venetian Walk falling under the housing tax credits – or 24 of its 61 apartments for seniors ages 62 and up.
Senior residents receiving Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies will not see a rise in their share of the rent because those increases would be absorbed by HUD.
And while management declined to pass along allowable AMI rent hikes to its seniors during the height of the pandemic, this year soaring maintenance and supply costs forced its hand, said Stephanie Baker, owner of Accolade Property Management, which manages Venetian Walk.
“With the current inflation going on we can’t afford to maintain the building properly and pay our utilities without an increase,” Baker said in a statement.
But for seniors on a fixed income, the rent increase will consume a significant chunk of their budgets.
‘I’m at the max with this increase’
“It hurts,” said Gail Cooper, 85.
Cooper and her husband retired to Florida 22 years ago from Chicago, selling their house there and buying one in Venice’s Pelican Pointe golf course community, using cash. There they lived a good life for 16 years, she said – back when this area was more affordable.
Her husband, who had worked for decades in sales and managing a company, did not earn a pension. Cooper, who retired from working in retail sales, did not either. But they lived comfortably on their savings and Social Security.
When he died five years ago, prompting her move to Venetian Walk, she used proceeds from the sale of their home to pay off more than $200,000 in his medical bills. She has plenty of her own, too, from an eye condition.
Now, as the rent and other expenses climb, she, like other residents, has little left to live on.
“I don’t complain,” she said. “But I’m at the max with this increase.”
Cooper worries what might happen if she had to move from Venetian Walk, where since her husband’s death she has spent years building a community of friends and an independent life in an apartment warmly furnished with their belongings.
She refuses to turn to her four adult sons, who have their own families to support.
“I don’t ask,” she said. “I’m still a mama.”
When ‘affordable’ is no longer affordable
Cooper’s story has become increasingly common for seniors, exacerbated by the current housing crisis, said Jeff Johnson, Florida state director for the AARP.
As rents skyrocket and affordable mobile home parks disappear – many replaced by high-rise condos or luxury homes – more of Florida’s seniors are struggling to survive.
“I think there is an assumption that people who are retired in Florida are all living very comfortably,” he said. “You think about people living in the condos at the beach in Siesta Key or Longboat Key or downtown Sarasota.”
But more common are Florida retirees who are on a budget – only to have their savings and other resources wiped out by major medical bills from a long-term illness, he said.
“Retirement doesn’t always look like what you see in the brochures or on the billboards,” he said.
What’s more, the current housing crisis for seniors is compounded by larger changes in the U.S. workforce economy. No longer do we have middle-class retirees flocking here from the North after leaving unionized factory jobs with pensions to fall back upon, he added.
Instead, about half of Floridians age 65 and older now count on Social Security as a primary source of income, Johnson said. For about a third of them, Social Security makes up 90% of their income.
“The fact is, the cost of living increase (in Social Security) doesn’t keep up with rising housing costs in Florida,” Johnson said.
That is not likely to stop people from retiring to Florida anytime soon, he added. But he does foresee the housing crunch pushing many seniors out of expensive coastal communities like Sarasota to internal or rural counties – exacerbating challenges of isolation, transportation and access to quality health care.
Back to work, or leave?
For now, some seniors are scrambling to stay put – trying to find ways to preserve the type of retirement for which they labored all their lives.
For many, that includes going back to work, said John Smith, 66, a resident of North Port’s Willow Creek Apartments.
After Smith moved to Florida in 2011 following years in manufacturing and purchasing positions in Rhode Island, he worked for five years in the Venice office of AARP’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, helping retirees find jobs.
“That’s when I got to know a lot more about affordable housing and the needs of seniors,” he said of the surging problem ahead of the current crisis. “They needed extra income to make ends meet once a month.”
Now fully retired, Smith finds himself in a similar situation. Willow Creek is an affordable community for income-restricted adults ages 55 and older.
Like Venetian Walk, its rents shot up, he said – climbing $100 monthly starting June 1, on top of a monthly increase within the past year of $74, bringing his total rent now for a one-bedroom apartment to $843 a month. Water costs have soared the past couple of years as well.
Though Smith can draw from retirement income other than Social Security, inflation and recent rent and utility increases are squeezing his food and household budget. He is trying to avoid going back to work due to health issues.
“It’s very upsetting,” Smith said. “You feel that there’s something wrong in the system. You planned your life a certain way. I’m not a rich person. I worked hard all my life and made a good income.”
Staying proactive, he is putting his name on waiting lists for other affordable communities, just in case. But he also is looking farther afield, beyond Florida, researching housing and costs of living nationwide.
“I would move just about anywhere in the country, if I found the right fit,” he said.
Some are not as fortunate.
Paula Garavalia, 72, a resident of Venetian Walk since it opened in 2014, doesn’t drive. She walks or takes the bus, sometimes riding with fellow residents to her church’s food pantry.
Having grown up in Venice and later retiring as a paralegal from Sarasota firms, she lives simply and frugally. There’s little left to cut from her budget, she said. Likely she’ll have to scrap her recently purchased cremation plan, she surmised, adding, half-jokingly: “I can’t afford to die.”