New PA program could help elderly with housing issues
Centre County will soon become one of the first counties in the commonwealth to start a unique affordable housing program that focuses on the elderly — one that local officials believe has the potential for “a lot of really amazing changes.”
Centre County recently received about $85,000 — part of a $500,000 state grant that was awarded to six total counties — as part of the Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity (ECHO) program, which basically builds temporary pre-fabricated cottages on the side or backyard of a host family who can provide necessary assistance. In other words, a senior or an elderly couple in financial need would be able to live on the property of a close family member while all involved parties could still maintain their independence.
The county will start with a single cottage (with its own kitchen, living space and bedroom) as a pilot program of sorts. The host family would have to pay for utilities, while the elderly cottage tenant(s) would pay rent — capped at 30% of their income — with the state taking care of the details and other costs. When the small cottage is no longer needed, likely in a matter of years, it can be moved elsewhere.
“This is one of those situations where this is going to allow people to keep their family close and keep that support, in such a way that the family is still able to enjoy its independence and still care for their loved one in a way that may work better for everyone,” said Morgan Wasikonis, executive director for Housing Transitions Inc., a local nonprofit that will work closely with the county Office of Aging on the program.
Clearfield County was the first in the state to try the ECHO program in 2018. The initiative was widely seen as a success, even garnering national recognition, with the county constructing another cottage in 2020. Then, last summer, a Philadelphia-area housing consultant approached Centre County officials about potentially expanding the program — and Wasikonis and Co. jumped on board.
They applied for a grant last year and, on Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging announced it would fund five total cottages in the following areas: Centre County, Fayette County, Lackawanna County and Huntingdon/Bedford/Fulton counties.
Wasikonis anticipates the county’s first senior will move into an ECHO cottage around this time next year. But, before that happens, the county Office of Aging will have to choose who that will be — those interested in applying can call the office at (814) 355-6716 — before Wasikonis’ organization takes care of the zoning red tape and other details.
Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe lauded the new program, saying community members often ask what options look like for taking care of their elderly parents.
“Often, there’s this sense that the only options are keeping them in their current home, which might be difficult to manage … or going to a new space that might be an assisted-living facility,” Pipe said. “And many people say, ‘I wish they could move in with me or be close to me, but it’s just not an option’ — and this is closing that gap.”
A single cottage this go-round won’t significantly impact Centre County’s housing issues when it comes to senior citizens. But the program is seen as an important first step in addressing the problem of too few options between assisted-living and 100% independence.
Pipe hopes this first cottage leads to many more. Wasikonis’ goal is for this to potentially expand beyond senior citizens, maybe to those with intellectual disabilities or mental-health challenges who need help but also desire independence.
“Any housing is expensive to build and create, but I think that when people see the benefits of this, it can spread,” Wasikonis said. “I see this as the potential for a lot of really amazing changes when it comes to rethinking housing.”