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 home for 34 years.”
But she knows her home isn’t the safest place right now; for her or her husband, Bo, who is battling cancer.
For example, there’s no bathroom on the first floor.
“I feel more unsafe for my husband,” Bolen-Geter said. “I need to make things better for him so that I don’t have to worry when I’m at work, is he going to be ok?”
Keeping up with repairs has meant keeping a job. At the age of 69, Bolen-Geter is still working as a nurse in the Harrisburg School District.
“I had a plan,” she said. “We were going to move into an apartment and travel and just relax because I’ve worked my whole life and every bit of that has been put on hold.”
Bolen-Geter tried looking for that apartment, but found rent has gone way up in recent years. And when she called around to subsidized senior apartments, she found she would have to wait.
“I’ve got to have a roof over my head,” she said. “Apartments are too high. The waiting lists are too long. Where am I going to go? I’m not going to be 69 and homeless.”
The Dauphin County Area Agency on Aging agrees it’s a huge problem.
They say the wait for a studio apartment at Harmony Towers in Harrisburg is six to 12 months. For a one bedroom apartment, it jumps to one to two years.
At Pheasant Hill Estates in Susquehanna Township, there are more than 200 seniors on the waiting list with an average wait of two to two-and-a-half years.
And at Hershey Plaza Apartments in Derry Township, the average wait is two to three years.
That is not acceptable, according to Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick.
“When we see the waiting time, on average, between one and two years for access to affordable senior housing, regardless of the emerging situation, that is a crisis,” Hartwick said.
Bob Burns of the Dauphin County Area Agency on Aging says rising rent for privates apartments is only making the problem worse. He’s finding more and more seniors staying in unsafe situations because they simply have nowhere else to go.
“A lot of it relates to heating issues, especially with winter coming up,” Burns said. “Obviously that’s a very unsafe condition if somebody has no heat for the winter.”
Burns said in many cases, seniors are forced into a shelter situation to bridge the gap.
“These are people who are homeowners,” he said. “They’ve paid off their mortgage in most instances, but they’re now in a position where the property’s not liveable any longer.”
Dauphin County recently launched the Whole Home Repairs Program, allowing low to moderate income homeowners to apply for up to $50,000 in renovations using money from the American Rescue Plan. The response was overwhelming.
“Within hours of the announcement being made, we had far more applicants than we had funding available,” Hartwick said. “So the need obviously exists.”
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 this is where I want to be. I’m comfortable right here in my home, right here in the city.”
While she’s waiting for answer, she’ll continue to work. But she admits, she’s anxious for the day she doesn’t have to.
“I love my job, but I want to sit on my front porch and I want to watch Chicago PD reruns,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Dauphin County leaders say they’d love to see more state and federal funding for the Whole Home Repairs program. They said what they’re going to be able to offer people right now is truly just a drop in the bucket.
They also say if you think you might need to find affordable housing later in life, the time to act is now. They urge you to make a plan and reach out to your local agency on again if you need help getting started.