Seniors in South Lake Tahoe see lack of affordable housing |

Seniors in South Lake Tahoe see lack of affordable housing

Claire Cudahy
Lisa Dernbach, a Meals on Wheels volunteer of 16 years, delivers a meal to a senior in South Lake Tahoe.
Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

From charming homes in the Tahoe Keys to kitchen-less converted motel rooms, housing for senior citizens in South Lake Tahoe runs the gamut.

“I’ve got the absolute extremes on my route,” said Lisa Dernbach, a volunteer Meals on Wheels driver of 16 years. “The living situations for seniors are really varied.”

Meals on Wheels serves around 80 homebound seniors in South Lake Tahoe each day with the help of a rotation of 20-25 volunteer drivers.

Dernbach, who got involved with the program because of how helpful it was for her grandparents, said it can be difficult to see the living conditions of some senior residents she delivers meals to.

Old motels converted into long-term rentals are generally the worst housing conditions she encounters.

“To me, that’s pretty much the lowest housing you are going to see for seniors in our community other than some of the really old trailer parks,” she explained “And if they can’t make that rent money, then they’re homeless.”

Two subsidized housing complexes are available for seniors in South Lake Tahoe, but the wait times are often too long as rising rents are forcing seniors to relocate.

Bonnie Leech, a resident at Tahoe Senior Plaza and Meals on Wheels recipient, was on the waiting list for five years before finally landing an apartment.

“I could not afford $600 to $800 for an apartment. It took me two paychecks. And just when the rent was going up, I got a call from this lady. This angel,” said Leech, pointing to Sheila Cooper, administrator at Tahoe Senior Plaza.

“They tell me that in some cases the next step would have been their car,” explained Cooper.

The 45-units at Tahoe Senior Plaza are subsidized based on income, and in some cases, the rent could be as low as $25 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

“I would hope that someday they would put in another [senior housing complex]. As our company goes, not here. They do build all over, but they don’t have anything scheduled here,” said Cooper.

Tahoe Senior Plaza opened in 1999, and in 2009, South Lake Tahoe welcomed its second senior housing complex, Kelly Ridge Apartments. The 32 units of affordable housing for very low-income seniors also have a two-to five-year waiting list.

These two properties were constructed using city grants and state redevelopment funds, according to city of South Lake Tahoe public information officer Tracy Franklin.

“There are no plans at this time for future construction as these projects received funding through Redevelopment,” wrote Franklin in an email. “Governor Brown abolished all Redevelopment Agencies throughout the state of California and this funding mechanism is no longer available.”

On a county level, the issue of affordable housing for seniors is well known.

“The senior population in El Dorado County is growing and this population can sometimes struggle to find affordable housing or to make ends meet,” said Maggie Williams, health program manager for El Dorado County Health & Human Services Agency, the group behind Meals and Wheels and other senior services.

“Housing can be especially challenging in the Tahoe Basin where the inventory is low and prices are higher than in some surrounding areas.”

The county does not develop senior housing; however, it is working to help ease financial burdens through programs like the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), which helps income-eligible households offset the cost of heating and cooling their homes. Priority is given to seniors older than the age of 60, disabled people and families with children younger than 5.

“The senior nutrition program currently fills a great need in the South Lake Tahoe area,” explained Williams.

The program serves lunches for seniors Monday through Friday from noon to 12:30 p.m. at the Senior Center, located at 3050 Lake Tahoe Blvd. The same meal is then delivered through the Meals on Wheels program.

Though the county programs are essential for many seniors, they don’t address the issue of a lack of affordable senior housing in South Lake Tahoe — one facet of a larger problem tied to the high cost of development in the Tahoe Basin.

Scott Weavil, vice president of Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, recently wrote a guest column for the Tribune about why he helped form the local homeless shelter, the Warm Room.

“My wife had gone to the grocery store, and I wanted to know what had upset the hot chocolate run,” wrote Weavil. “An elderly homeless couple has been rummaging through a dumpster in the parking lot. They were literally freezing — threadbare clothes wet and icing over.”

The incident took place in the late fall of 2013 in South Lake Tahoe, and is just one of many examples of how a lack of senior housing is affecting this vulnerable demographic.

While attracting more senior housing — and affordable housing in general — will likely become easier once Tahoe Regional Planning Agency completes the process of amending its development rights system, in the meantime there are ways community members can help support South Lake Tahoe seniors.

“Currently, there is a great need for volunteer drivers in South Lake Tahoe for the home delivered meals program,” said Williams.

To volunteer, call Susie Rust, meal site coordinator, at 530-573-3130.

“Our volunteer drivers really are the heart of this program and they enjoy brightening the day of others. For many of those served, the daily contact with volunteers is as vital as the meal,” added Williams.

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