The Sister José Women’s Center in downtown Tucson has helped women of all ages in desperate situations for more than a decade. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of the women have been in their 70s and 80s—many homeless for the first time.
Rents are increasing—in some cases, doubling—and many older Arizonans on fixed incomes can’t keep up, says Jean Fedigan, the center’s founder and CEO.
“If you live on $841 a month and they raise the rent to $1,000, what can you do?” Fedigan says.
Rising rents are helping to fuel an affordable housing crisis in the Tucson region that has hit older adults particularly hard. AARP Arizona is part of a coalition— including the Tucson Housing Foundation and the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona’s Elder Alliance—that is working on possible solutions.
The coalition has created the Affordable Housing Initiative for Older Adults and convened working groups to discuss and prioritize 23 options that it outlined in a recent report. Those include land-use and zoning changes, repurposing of buildings, age-friendly designs and rent-hike limitations. Former school buildings could be transformed into apartments. New housing developments could be required to include affordable units.
A number of the recommendations would require legislative action, says Jim Murphy, president of the Tucson Housing Foundation’s board of trustees. The coalition is working this year to form alliances beyond Pima County to advocate for policy changes at the state level.
At the women’s center, Fedigan says she has seen more older clients since the federal pandemic-related eviction moratorium ended in 2021. They tend to stay longer than younger ones. Some have pets, which not all landlords accept; others need housing with supportive services, which is in short supply.
“There are many pathways to homelessness,” and high rent is a big one for older adults, she says.
Over the three years ending in September 2021, Tucson’s median household income increased 3.8 percent, while the median rent rose by more than 25 percent, according to data cited by the city. In a 2022 report, Arizona State University researchers note that the Tucson region has only 2.9 affordable rental units for every 10 households that need them.
The city has tried to alleviate the problem. It requires landlords to accept applicants no matter their source of income—an attempt to end discrimination against those who receive public assistance to help pay their rent.
Enacted last fall, the ordinance is partly a response to the Arizona Legislature barring cities and counties from instituting rent control. This stance has made Arizona a haven for developers from states where rent hikes are limited by law; they snap up apartment complexes and charge whatever the market will bear, says Tucson City Council member Steve Kozachik (D).
Soon after the ordinance passed, state Rep. Ben Toma (R-Peoria), a real estate agent, filed a complaint with the Arizona attorney general. Toma, now state House speaker, argues it creates a “protected class” of renters, which he alleges is unconstitutional. Kozachik worries that politics could ultimately mean the state allocates fewer federal infrastructure dollars to Tucson for its housing initiatives.
The city also passed an ordinance to allow what are known as accessory dwelling units in residential areas. An ADU is a home built on an existing lot, such as an apartment above a garage.
Go to unitedwaytucson.org/affordable-housing to learn more about Tucson’s older adult housing initiative.
Chris Thomas is a writer living in Seattle.
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