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Florida housing costs squeeze older adults on a fixed income. A new tool can help

A couple searches for social service programs aggregated by a digital tool on the National Council on Aging website.
Courtesy of the National Council on Aging
A couple searches for social service programs aggregated by a digital tool on the National Council on Aging website.

Aging Floridians on a fixed income are having a hard time keeping up with cost of living increases.

"If you're on Social Security, honestly, I don't know how you can afford to live in Florida because the housing costs are high," said program director Kathleen Sarmiento at the Miami-based Alliance for Aging.

It's one of 11 regional offices designated by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs to provide information and benefits assistance to aging residents and caregivers.

Over the past year, Sarmiento said her office received triple the amount of calls. Typically, callers are older adults on a fixed income who are seeking healthcare assistance, like inquiries about home health services and insurance counseling.

But lately, callers have had a new complaint: housing.

The agencies serving Florida's two largest metropolitan areas report that more seniors are seeking housing assistance, citing circumstances like rent increases at an address they've lived at for years.

Patty Suarez, a spokeswoman for the Senior Connections Center, said the trend is mirrored in the counties her agency serves: Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee and Highlands.

"Many seniors can no longer afford their rent, cannot find other available affordable housing, and fear becoming homeless," Suarez wrote in an email, including that the number for the Elder Helpline is at 1-800-96-ELDER.

Ann Marie Winter, the director of the agency serving Pasco and Pinellas counties, said they've fielded "a startling number" of calls in recent months from older adults who are facing evictions or seeking legal aid with housing filings.

The office also reported a 15 percent jump in overall call volume compared to this time last year.

"It has always been a struggle for seniors to make ends meet because so many live on fixed income. They’ve been making hard choices about buying food or paying for their prescriptions," Winter wrote in an email. "Now, with very high rental increases in our area, seniors now have to decide between paying rent and homelessness."

In Hillsborough County, the number of residents 62 or older experiencing homelessness jumped 40% since 2018.

Ramsey Alwin, the president of the National Council on Aging, said the last two years of an ongoing health crisis, and now, record-breaking inflation has put a spotlight on how financially fragile seniors are.

"So many older adults living on that fixed income, social security, or retirement savings are often one crisis away — one crisis away from plummeting into poverty or homelessness," Alwin said.

Earlier this year, a study found that many seniors who receive Social Security benefits can't afford basic necessities. Although one in four older adults rely on Social Security, the average benefits cover less than three-fourths, or 68%, of basic living expenses, according to the report.

To bridge the gap, Alwin said the council has revamped a benefits check-up tool to help older adults identify money-saving resources all in one place. User can filter more than 2,000 programs by ZIP code to check their eligibility for discounts on things like prescription drug costs, utility bills and groceries.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

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Gabriella Paul