The nation's growing population of older adults will get some much-needed help for their housing needs in 2010. This may be very welcome news since seniors won't see an automatic cost of living increase in their Social Security checks for the first time since 1975.
Along with health care, lack of affordable housing is the most important problem facing our older population. The AARP reports that there are currently 10 eligible seniors on the waiting list for every available unit of Section 202 housing — the only affordable housing program dedicated only to seniors.
So this fall, Congress addressed the backlog by approving a $60 million, or 8 percent, increase for the Section 202 program in fiscal year 2010. It is the program's first funding increase since 2004.
Section 202 provides grants and rental help through nonprofit sponsors of low-income senior housing. Residents typically pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Advocates have long argued that the program needs more money — and they will continue to do so.
"We would like to see more money, obviously, but it's still an increase and we're still happy about it," said Alayna Waldrum, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging's legislative representative for housing.
The funding increase can pay for new Section 202 units. It also can help create and train more service coordinators who make sure Section 202 residents have access to food, medical care and transportation.
About 3,100 additional Section 202 were funded in 2009, Waldrum said. That total is expected to increase in 2010, but it's difficult to predict exactly how many because of variable costs like construction and labor.
—Energy efficiency and paying the bills on time:
The Obama administration is backing several initiatives for energy efficiency improvements in 2010. They apply to homeowners of all ages.
Energy efficiency creates savings on monthly bills. Many older adults live on fixed incomes and need all the financial help they can get.
"What tends to happen with older people is that they do pay their bills but they cut back on medicine or food," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
Improvements can be simple and inexpensive, like adding an adjustable thermostat, replacing old insulation and sealing leaks around air ducts. Other upgrades, like buying a new washing machine or furnace, cost more and run into the thousands of dollars.
To help pay for improvements, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $5 billion for improvements to protect a home from wind, rain and sunlight. That includes upgrades like installing new drains and gutters to replacing doors and windows.
There also are tax credits available for improvements that lower utility bills. The tax credit applies to 30 percent of the cost, up to $1,500.
Seniors struggling to pay their energy bills can turn to the Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program. The federal government is pumping $5.1 billion into the program in 2010, double the amount from two years ago.
Seniors interested in these programs can contact the federal government http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/weatherization/. The can also contact their utility company or a local Area Agency on Aging for guidance.
—The $6,500 homebuyer tax credit:
In November, Congress created a $6,500 tax credit for people who have owned their home for five consecutive years but want to relocate.
The program is especially beneficial to older homeowners who have owned a home for a long time and still have substantial equity in their property.
While people usually don't change homes just because a tax break is available, seniors who have long planned to downsize into a smaller home may want to take advantage of the credit now.
To qualify, buyers must have owned and lived in the same home for five consecutive years out of the past eight. They must sign a purchase agreement by April 30 and close before June 30.
The purchase price of the home can't exceed $800,000. The income limit for single taxpayers is $125,000; for a married couple, it's $225,000.
The $6,500 credit can help pay for home improvements or moving costs, for example.
"A lot of the people who might take advantage of (the credit) are baby boomers in retirement," said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor's. "They're not in the market for a five-bedroom McMansion. They're looking for a two bedroom condo."