The lack of affordable housing for the growing senior population in the United States is a looming crisis and deserves more attention and resources from both the private sector and government, according to a leading advocate for aging issues.

Robyn Stone, senior vice president of research at LeadingAge Center for Applied Research, a national association of aging services and housing providers, says that the expected increase over the next several decades of people in their 80s and 90s living on fixed incomes is the “sleeper issue” of aging policy.

“They are the new homeless if we don’t start thinking about the building and expansion of affordable housing options in metro areas and also in rural communities,” Stone said during a panel discussion on senior housing at the ULI Housing Opportunity 2017 conference in New Orleans.

The panel, which was moderated by Katherine Hoover, lead volunteer for AARP’s Age-Friendly Communities program, highlighted these challenges as well as emerging approaches to financing, design, and resource delivery for affordable senior housing.

Stone said she often makes the case that affordable senior housing can become a platform for integrating services for low-income seniors and be an economic driver in communities by more efficiently delivering health care and other long-term support.

She said that the concentration of high-risk, high-cost elderly people at senior housing centers presents an opportunity for a “hot-spotting” approach by offering a range of health care and other vital services to encourage greater use of such services—and follow-through care—among these at-risk populations.

Stone said that a study of data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Medicaid, and Medicare in 12 areas around the United States found that the presence of an on-site service coordinator at senior housing centers reduced hospitalization rates for residents by 20 percent. “Housing becomes a solution because we are a platform for many low-income vulnerable elderly who can be served much more efficiently and effectively in these buildings in communities across the country,” she said.

The panel also offered a look at some innovative approaches being used by developers of senior housing, including the integration of low-income elderly housing in mixed-use developments.

J. Michael Pitchford, president and chief executive officer of Community Preservation and Development Corp. (CPDC), a not-for-profit real estate developer focused on high-quality affordable housing, said that his organization is increasing its engagement with senior housing in anticipation of a crisis.

He outlined how the organization is using HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program to take an isolated 200-unit public housing development for seniors in Richmond, Virginia, and spread those units throughout three new developments across the city. The program essentially shifts money from public housing to private developers through HUD’s Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers, which allow very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to use their subsidy with participating landlords who are approved to participate in the program.

One of CPDC’s recently completed senior housing buildings is a converted high school where a developer tried and failed to create market-rate senior housing. The organization bought the 71-unit property for $685,000, rehabbed it, and moved in the Section 8 residents from the public housing project. “It’s quite an attractive property now,” Pitchford said.

Another property in a more affluent section of town will include a mix of senior and market-rate housing along with some street-level retail space, with 102 market-rate family units and 72 senior units filled with tenants relocated from the public housing complex, he said. Pitchford said that incorporating market-rate units helped alleviate community concerns about moving public housing residents into the area. “That was the magic that worked for that particular community,” he said.

Jamison Weinbaum, executive vice president of development for MidCity, a Maryland-based company with a history of working on mixed-income projects, detailed an upcoming senior housing project in Washington, D.C. The housing is part of the company’s Brookland Manor property, which includes 373 apartments subsidized through HUD’s Section 8 program. It has secured approval for a redevelopment plan, dubbed RIA, that calls for about 1,800 residential units—including the 373 affordable units—as well as 181,000 square feet (17,000 sq m) of retail space.

The project also will include an all-affordable 200-unit senior building with high-end amenities such as a food pantry, computer labs, a business center, walking paths, and an outdoor courtyard with a koi pond, he said. “The goal really is to do something that hasn’t been done, that we haven’t seen in any affordable housing space for seniors,” Weinbaum said.

Weinbaum said that the property’s Section 8 contract will help subsidize the senior housing units, requiring residents to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent while HUD picks up the balance. “Effectively, it allows us to get market-rate rents in order to provide market-rate services for this low-income population,” he said.