December 1, 2021

County seniors in need of housing, transport

Cortland County’s senior population is growing, and county agencies said they would like to accommodate them with affordable senior housing. But in rural communities, where transportation is difficult, state aid isn’t likely to help. That leaves seniors re-thinking their residency, and perhaps leaving the county.

The Cortland Housing Assistance Council and the county Planning Department and Area Agency on Aging are considering a study to find out exactly what the senior population needs, and wants, from its housing and transportation systems.

“Affordable housing for seniors has been a discussion for years and this agency is looking into this again,” said Cortland Housing Assistance Council Executive Director Shawna Grinnell. The agency has monitored and addressed the housing needs in Cortland County since 1976, and manages low- to moderate-income housing at 47 Pomeroy St., 26 Homer Ave. and 18-20 Maple Ave.

Cortland County’s population over 65 has grown over the decades. In 2000, seniors accounted for 12.5% of the county’s 48,599 people, or about 6,075 people, U.S. Census data show. In 2019, the latest year for which data are available, seniors made up 16.9% of the county’s 47,581 people, or about 8,041 people.

That’s nearly a 32% increase in seniors.

County Planning Director Trisha Jesset is looking into the Formula Grants for Rural Areas program to support public transportation in rural areas, but the state first wants evidence the program would be useful.

“If we can show the need, then we can have a viable foundation to request grant funding,” Jesset said at an Agriculture, Planning and Environmental Committee meeting last week. “We won’t get it if we don’t ask for it.”

With the market study’s results, Jesset said the county could have a good case not only for housing assistance but for daily transportation.

“The first step is to have a market study completed to ensure that there is a need,” Grinnell said. “So at this agency is looking into the possibility of developing an affordable senior housing project, but will not be able to move forward until the findings of the market study have been revealed.”

After talking to Grinnell and Cortland County Area Agency on Aging Director Liz Haskins, Jesset said it’s clear transportation isn’t the only issue — there is a serious housing issue for low-income seniors.

“Grinnell said she’s been seeing some pushback from the state for low-income housing for these seniors that live in the country — they want to stay in the country, they don’t want to move into apartments in downtown Cortland,” Jesset said to the legislators.

Haskins did not respond to a request Wednesday for comment.

During the meeting, Legislator Kevin Fitch (R-Homer, Preble, Scott) said he’s known seniors who have moved because of housing and transportation issues.

“When I was supervisor, we had approached the idea of senior housing because we had seniors that had to leave their homes in Scott, and ended up going out to Skaneateles just for that,” said Fitch, who was previously the Scott town supervisor.

Legislator Ann Homer (DCortland) said seniors in rural areas face challenges getting around, particularly to and from the city.

“This could also help with our remote location seniors where transportation is a real issue for them — getting to the grocery store, getting to the doctor, to the pharmacy — we could somehow build in some service for them,” Homer said. Jesset said the state is unlikely to fund rural senior housing projects where the residents already have difficulties getting around town.

And in order for the state to assist in creating a senior living facility, it helps to already have a bus route or mode of public transportation in place, Fitch said.

“For us to be able to establish bus routes out to the rural areas could actually assist the municipalities in getting these developers to develop senior housing,” Fitch said.

For now, Jesset said the first step is applying for state grants to build on the county’s public transportation.

“If we can work with transportation and give seniors a safe, dependable system that they can still get to the services they need to access, then there’s no reason we shouldn’t be providing this for the residents,” Jesset said.