UTAH (ABC4) – Rent increase across the state is making it difficult for many people to live, and Utah’s elderly residents appear to be among the hardest hit.

“Rent is going up, particularly in the downtown [Salt Lake] area, where a lot of the elders live and have lived for a number of years,” says Debbie Booth, information specialist at Utah’s Adult Protective Services.

Average rent in Salt Lake County has increased by 23% since January 2019, according to a report released by property management software company Entrata. The report also shows that the number of residents paying rent during the last week of the month increased by a whopping 546%.   

Apartments present a particular difficulty for senior citizens, Booth says. Not only have many older adults lived in their homes for many years, but moving is also a challenge physically and can be for disorienting older folks.

“Even if they move, it’s really difficult to find something that is lower rent or accessible for them,” she says. “And when someone is in their home for a number of years, it’s really, really difficult for them to move because that’s what they know.”

Raising housing costs are affecting more than just seniors who rent, too. Property taxes are also on the rise in Utah, which can present financial challenges even for those who have paid off their homes.

Clients of Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, photo by Jessica Bundy

One of the key reasons why older adults can’t keep up with higher housing costs is because many are living on fixed incomes. Even when rents and property taxes, increase, their incomes won’t. Booth also mentions that many seniors did not have the availability of pensions when they were working, and some of them may have been stay-at-home parents who didn’t work.

“It’s not possible to ask for a raise on social security,” says Afton January, communication manager at Salt Lake County Aging & Adult Services. “Obviously, we don’t want to encourage people who have already retired to go and try to get back in the job market in order to make ends meet, but unfortunately, that is something that happens.”

And even though many members of Utah’s elderly population are in need of assistance, Booth says they might be hesitant to reach out. Culturally, older Americans value independence, which might make them less likely to seek help.

“This population was raised to just pull up their bootstraps and make it work, and so a lot of times they won’t ask for help,” Booth says. “Sometimes it’s difficult for us to even know who out there needs help because they don’t reach out.”

While increased rent prices present a challenge for all renter demographics, for the elderly, the consequences of not being able to afford housing are particularly dire. According to Booth, having to set aside extra rent money each month makes it difficult for seniors to afford other essentials like food and medications.

“We do see a fair amount of neglect and self-neglect because people just can’t afford to live,” Booth says. “We don’t think about our elder population being food insecure, but there’s a huge amount of that in this state.”

And while there are a plethora of new apartments being built at a rapid pace, specifically in the Salt Lake Valley, the majority are luxury complexes with rent that is too exorbitant for many. Despite the fact that many of these buildings say they’ll provide a certain number of affordable units, the cost still isn’t reasonable for many seniors, Booth says.

“When you’re looking at rent of $1,000, that just isn’t even doable,” she says.

In extreme circumstances, when seniors can’t afford housing, they may be forced into homelessness. Although the homeless services system in Utah is robust, it is not equipped to deal with an influx of elderly people.  

“A lot of the clients we see at Aging and Adult Services are people who are receiving dialysis, or who are dealing with the early stages of dementia,” January says. “Navigating the housing system, dealing with increased housing costs, or god forbid, facing homelessness, is even more difficult for them than it is for your average, able-bodied person.”  

A client of Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, photo by Jessica Bundy

The housing crisis isn’t news to those working with aging adults. January notes that – since she’s worked at Aging and Adult Services – there’s always been a steady flow of seniors coming in for housing assistance.

While there are senior low-income housing options provided by the county and by the Salt Lake Housing Authority, units are scarce and don’t come available often.

For seniors struggling with increased housing costs, she recommends the housing liaison program provided through Aging and Adult Services, in addition to contacting the county to discuss eligibility for getting aid with property taxes. Booth refers those in need to the Home Energy Assistance Target (HEAT) program, which provides assistance paying for utilities. The 211 helpline, provided by United Way, is also available. This 24-hour line provides callers with information about a variety of resources available in their area.

With programs like a recent hotel renovation with the goal of creating affordable housing for more than 130 seniors and veterans in Salt Lake City, it’s clear that there are steps being taken to solve the problem.

But even with the existing resources and new initiatives, there’s still not enough to go around.

According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Utah has a 45,421 shortage of affordable and available rental homes for low-income renters.

“When we’re talking about people 60+, there are even fewer resources, housing-wise, than there are for your average adult,” she says. “There’s just nowhere for them to go.”

Taking care of Utah’s aging population – and ensuring they have access to safe, accessible, and affordable housing – will be an ongoing effort.

As Booth puts it: “There’s the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ well it really takes a community to care for an aging adult and we really need to be responsible and look out for these folks.”