“We need to build more housing at all income levels, including affordable housing,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a recent telephone interview. Oakland city staff are currently working on a Housing Equity Roadmap, due out in April 2015. “The goal of the roadmap is to prevent displacement and to preserve affordability,” she said. “We have this incredible population of elders here who have worked their whole lives and given so much to this city. It is our duty to work to give them security in their last years.”

The California Assembly is working on legislation that would provide more funding for affordable housing. In the meantime, the Oakland’s Housing Assistance Center works to connect seniors with support and services to help them stay in their homes. Many private organizations throughout Oakland also provide much-needed services. Here are just three of the nonprofits, whose innovative approaches are helping low income seniors age with grace and ease.

RTO volunteers repair a senior's home in North Oakland. Jesse’s home before repairs. Photo courtesy of RTO.

RTO volunteers repair a senior’s home in North Oakland. Jesse’s home before repairs. Photo courtesy of RTO.

Rebuilding Together Oakland

From an unassuming office in a drab industrial building in North Oakland, Rebuilding Together Oakland (RTO) dispatches building crews to help Oakland’s seniors, veterans and disabled residents stay in their homes. The nonprofit, a local branch of a national organization, provides free repairs and accessibility upgrades to seniors whose homes might otherwise become uninhabitable.

“Most typically what we’ll see here are issues of deferred maintenance,” said RTO Executive Director Lisa Shulman Malul. “Are they going to pay for their heat, pay for their food or pay for maintenance?” Social service agencies aren’t equipped to help with physical repairs; RTO tries to fill that gap.

“You compound deferred maintenance over 20 years,” said Associate Program Manager Nic Lukehart, and a home can become unlivable.

Ninety percent of the homeowners RTO serves in Oakland are African American; the rest are equally divided between white and Latino residents. “In a good year, we can touch 30 percent” of the people who request assistance, Lukehart said. This is not a good year. The group is currently able to complete repairs for just 15 to 20 percent of those who request help.

RTO will assist with a wide variety of repairs as well as accessibility upgrades such as ramps, railings and lighting to help seniors navigate safely in their homes. Donations of time, money and goods from the community such as from members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Anderson Carpet company help keep the organization afloat.

Jesse’s home before repairs. Photo courtesy of RTO.

Jesse’s home before repairs. Photo courtesy of RTO.

Lukehart told the story of a North Oakland senior named Jesse (he asked that we use only their first names to protect their privacy). “She had kind of given up,” he said, because she was overwhelmed by the amount of work that needed to be done on her home. Crews from RTO helped with everything from repairing light fixtures so she wouldn’t risk falling in the dark to fixing plumbing to removing lead paint. They tore down a garage that was on the verge of collapse and hauled away – literally — a ton of debris. “She went from really wanting to go into a retirement home to being rejuvenated and wanting to stay in her house,” he recalled.

RTO volunteers install a new wheelchair ramp for Melba. Photo courtesy of RTO.

RTO volunteers install a new wheelchair ramp for Melba. Photo courtesy of RTO.

“Every now and again, you’ll have a volunteer and they’ll fall in love with the homeowner,” said Lukehart. After installing a new wheelchair ramp for a homeowner named Melba, one longtime volunteer worked with her to restore an exercise machine she had been given by a hospital. After contacting the manufacturer to find parts for the very old machine, “we finally get this installed,” Lukehart said. “[Melba] was in tears by the end of it.” He ran into her at the grocery store later and found out she had built up to exercising for a full hour every day.

“We want them to have safe and healthy homes,” said Lukehart. “We’re talking a lot now about healthy housing.”

“It’s the best kind of civic engagement,” Malul added.

She believes that affordable housing is much more than buildings with subsidized rents. “Our philosophy is that the most affordable home is the one they’re living in,” she said.

Building healthy neighborhoods

Studies have shown that your zip code is the biggest determinant of your life expectancy. Joshua Simon, executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), cited as-yet-unpublished data showing that Piedmont residents will live, on average, 16 years longer than the residents of Oakland’s San Pablo corridor, one of the neighborhoods that the nonprofit serves.

“The reality is that people live in neighborhoods and not just in buildings,” said Simon. “It’s important that we have healthy, safe places where people can afford to live.”

EBALDC's multi-phase development at Lion Creek Crossings in East Oakland includes senior housing and family housing for intergenerational community building. Photo by Laura McCamy

EBALDC’s multi-phase development at Lion Creek Crossings in East Oakland includes senior housing and family housing for intergenerational community building. Photo by Laura McCamy


The Healthy Neighborhood program targets the San Pablo corridor and Havenscourt neighborhoods as pilots for a more comprehensive approach to improving health and decreasing poverty. Partnering with community stakeholders and connecting residents to the wider neighborhood are key components of this approach — and also critical to combating isolation in seniors. “The irony is, by making an age-friendly community that makes it better and easier for seniors, you also make a better neighborhood for the next generation of youth,” said Simon.“That also makes it safe for all of us, regardless of our age.”

“We encourage resident civic engagement in our buildings,” said Simon. “When people move into our buildings, we give them a voter registration form… We look for ways that people can be engaged in the neighborhood.”

The nonprofit hopes to spread this model to other sites, filling some of Oakland’s affordable housing gap. “As rents skyrocket, market forces are squeezing out the potential sites for affordable housing,” Simon noted. “It’s critical that we tie up sites as quickly as possible, which is what we’re trying to do.”

The walls of St. Mary's Center are covered in art, including this painting by Rodney Bell.

The walls of St. Mary’s Center are covered in art, including this painting by Rodney Bell.

Nonprofit provides shelter from the storm

“I want to get my sight back,” said Jack Johnson, 67, with an optimistic smile framed by his neatly combed beard. He was soaking up the sun on a warm winter day in the sunny courtyard of St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit that works with extremely low-income seniors and families. Johnson repaired houses and cars until he lost his sight three years ago, but, he said, “I want to go back to work.” He stops by the senior center three to five days a week. “St. Mary’s satisfies many of my needs,” he noted.

Jack Johnson comes to St. Mary's Center several times a week. Photo by Laura McCamy

Jack Johnson comes to St. Mary’s Center several times a week. Photo by Laura McCamy

The center offers a variety of services, including case management for homeless seniors over 55, a senior drop-in center, daily low-cost lunches, medical services and a 25-bed winter shelter, Oakland’s only homeless shelter specifically for seniors. The center is an oasis of serenity in a chaotic neighborhood. On weekday mornings, seniors gather at round tables in the drop-in center. Artwork from classes held at the center adorns the walls. Case workers meet with clients in small offices at the back of the room. A large table in front is filled with food donated by local stores and delivered by volunteers, which will be given away later.

Last year, St. Mary’s provided case management for 467 homeless seniors and reached out to 500 who live alone to help break their isolation. The nonprofit’s senior programs reach more than 1,000 low-income Oakland seniors each year.

Carol Johnson, St. Mary’s executive director, says that gentrification is only one part of the problem for low-income seniors. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which is a crucial source of income for many of the seniors she works with, maxes out at a meager $889.40 per month for a single person in California. With rents even at single room occupancy hotels as high as $700, Oakland housing is too expensive for someone living on SSI. “Because of the lack of cost of living increases over the past few years, their spending power has decreased dramatically,” Johnson said. “That only adds to the number of seniors who can’t pay their rent.”

SSI is meant to bring people who are aged, blind or disabled up to the poverty line. For low-wage earners over 65, SSI supplements the small payments they receive from Social Security. Congressional Democrats are proposing the SSI Restoration Act to improve the law’s income and asset limits, which haven’t been adequately updated in over 40 years. “Many of these people have had long work careers, but their Social Security payments don’t bring them to the federal poverty level,” Johnson observed.

“We can’t fix everything and we recognize that,” she said. “We really try to walk with people and be as supportive as we can.”

Judy Aguilar-Chavez, 66, photographed with Bennie Whitfield at St. Mary's, comes to the center every day for her "dose of St. Mary's." Photo by Laura McCamy

Judy Aguilar-Chavez, 66, photographed with Bennie Whitfield at St. Mary’s, comes to the center every day for her “dose of St. Mary’s.” Photo by Laura McCamy

These are just three out of many innovative programs that work hard to help Oakland’s low-income seniors stay safe at home during their retirement years.

As Mayor Schaaf said, “There is no one silver bullet that is going to solve this problem.”

 Laura McCamy wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP. This story is part of a series on the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.


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