Portia Bolen-Geter loves her century-old home on North 15th Street in Harrisburg.
“I’ve lived in Harrisburg my whole life,” she said. “I’ve lived in my house for 34 years.”
But she knows that home isn’t the safest place right now; for her or her husband Bo, who is battling cancer.
For example, there is no bathroom on the first floor.
“I feel more unsafe for my husband,” Bolen-Geter said. “I have to make him feel better so I don’t have to worry about it at work. Will he be okay?”
Keeping up with repairs meant keeping a job. At age 69, Bolen-Geter still works as a nurse in the Harrisburg School District.
“I had a plan,” she said. “We wanted to move into an apartment, travel and just relax because I’ve worked my whole life and all of that has been put on hold.”
Bolen-Geter tried looking for this apartment, but found that the rent has risen sharply in recent years. And when she stopped by subsidized senior housing, she found she had to wait.
“I need to have a roof over my head,” she said. “Apartments are too high. The waiting lists are too long. Where will I go? I’m not going to be 69 and homeless.”
The Dauphin County Area Agency on Aging agrees that it is a big problem.
They say the wait for a studio apartment at Harmony Towers in Harrisburg is six to 12 months. For a one-room apartment it is one to two years.
Pheasant Hill Estates in Susquehanna Township has more than 200 seniors on the waiting list, with an average wait time of two to two and a half years.
And at Hershey Plaza Apartments in Derry Township, the average wait time is two to three years.
That’s unacceptable, said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick.
“When we see the wait time to access affordable senior housing averaging one to two years, regardless of the situation that arises, that is a crisis,” Hartwick said.
Bob Burns of the Dauphin County Area Agnecy on Aging says rising private housing rents are only making the problem worse. He notices that more and more seniors are finding themselves in unsafe situations because they simply have nowhere else to go.
“A lot of this is related to heating issues, especially with winter coming,” Burns said. “This is of course a very unsafe situation if someone has no heating in the winter.”
Burns said that in many cases, seniors are being forced into shelters to fill the gap.
“These are people who are homeowners,” he said. “They have paid off their mortgage in most cases, but now they are in a situation where the property is no longer livable.”
Dauphin County recently launched the Whole House Repair Program, allowing low- to moderate-income homeowners to apply for up to $50,000 in home improvements using money from the American Rescue Plan. The response was overwhelming.
“Just a few hours after the announcement, we had far more applicants than we had funds available,” Hartwick said. “So the need is obviously there.”
Bolen-Geter applied for the program hoping it could help with her back porch, her unstable basement steps and her chimney, which is in danger of collapsing.
“I’m so hopeful, I don’t know what to do,” she said. “This program would help me stay in my home because that is the place I want to be. I feel comfortable here in my home, here in the city.”
While she waits for an answer, she continues working. But she admits she looks forward to the day when she doesn’t have to do it anymore.
“I love my job, but I want to sit on my porch and watch reruns of Chicago PD,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Dauphin County leaders say they would like to see more state and federal funding for the Whole Home Repairs program. They said that what they could offer people now was really just a drop in the ocean.
They also say that if you think you need to find affordable housing later in life, now is the time to act. You are urged to make a plan and contact your local agency again if you need help getting started.