ASTORIA — More seniors are waiting for affordable housing in western Queens than in any other part of the city, a recent survey found — as older residents living on fixed incomes face rising rents in the area, experts said.
Senior advocacy group LiveOn NY found that nearly 20,000 people are on waiting lists for seven affordable buildings for seniors in City Councilman Costa Constantinides' district, which encompasses Astoria as well as parts of Woodside, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.
That number far outpaces any other City Council district, according to the survey, which looked at almost 300 buildings across the five boroughs that are part of Section 202, a federal program that subsidizes affordable senior housing.
"This is a neighborhood that is changing rapidly; we're seeing rents going up very quickly," Constantinides said, adding that questions about housing costs are "the number one call to my office by far."
"We've seen three major senior housing developments go up in the last ten years," he said. "And still, we have 20,000 seniors on the waitlist."
A large chunk of that number can be attributed to properties owned by HANAC Inc., a social service provider that runs three affordable senior residences in Astoria with 350 units between them, but has a collective waiting list of nearly 13,000 people.
HANAC's most recent senior building opened in 2013 on 33rd Street near 31st Avenue, which a New York Daily News article at the time declared as harder to get into than Harvard University.
John Napolitano, the group's director of community development, attributed the demand for their buildings in part to HANAC's good reputation in the neighborhood, and the fact that they do a lot of senior outreach.
But it's also due to the fact that Astoria has many seniors whom he described as "property rich, but cash poor" — meaning they may own their own home, "but they just can't make payments for anything else, and they have to make really tough choices."
"They're seeing that they're not going to be able to afford their home much longer, and the urgency becomes real," he said, saying a majority of the seniors who applied to HANAC's newest building had an average income of 14,000 or 15,000 a year.
"It's a very desirable neighborhood to live in, and it's aging," said Claire Hilger, senior vice president for real estate with Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens.
Catholic Charities operates two affordable buildings for seniors in Astoria, which have a waiting list of about 1,300 residents between them, despite the fact that neither building has been open to new applicants for the last several years.
"It's really heartbreaking, because we have people calling us in really desperate situations," she said. "The need for people to get into these apartments is just huge."
Hilger said she and other senior housing providers support Mayor Bill de Blasio's Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposal, which was approved by a City Council vote Tuesday.
The zoning change is designed to spur the creation of more affordable and senior housing by allowing buildings made up of such units to be built taller, and eliminating parking requirements for them in some neighborhoods.
"For the most part, we have parking lots that are empty," said Hilger, who said most of the seniors they serve don't drive. Those vacant sites can be used to build more affordable senior housing, she said.
Constantinides said it was the need for more senior housing that convinced him to vote in favor of the mayor's zoning proposals — after local affordable housing providers like HANAC and Catholic Charities urged him to do so.
"All these providers came to me and said, 'We could do more if ZQA passes,'" he said.
"These are our neighbors, our mothers and our grandmothers," he added. "We need to act quickly."
Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy with LiveOn NY, said the ongoing zoning debates have at least drawn attention to the city's senior housing crisis.
Her group's survey projects that there are more than 200,000 low-income seniors on waiting lists for affordable housing across the city, with an average wait time of seven years.
"The whole ZQA debate, it opens a door, literally, to the city's awareness," she said. "You can't go backwards. You can't now close that door and say you never knew."