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L.I. group weighs housing as service to offer seniors

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According to a phone survey conducted by U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) in 2001, more than 200,000 seniors in the city were waiting for 17,000 housing units available through the federal Section 202 housing program for low-income seniors.Some 127,000 people of all ages were on the waiting list for Section 8 rental assistance, run through the New York City Housing Authority in January 2007, before the authority issued an additional 22,000 vouchers for affordable housing. The move upped the number of families served to somewhere around 105,000.This is the problem many seniors in Queens are facing. At the Elmhurst-Jackson Heights Senior Center, more than 400 people need affordable housing. While they wait for federally subsidized apartments to open up--a process that takes as long as 10 years--many seniors catch as catch can, sleeping in dank basements, other people's couches, or anywhere else they can afford.Take Woodside resident Fedina Correa. The chronically ill 62-year-old has shared a single room with her older brother for seven years."Every year, it becomes more difficult," she said through an interpreter.Correa has been on the federal housing waiting list for a few months now. She said the main issue is to have a stable home.Ana Berroa knows the story well. Before she was an assistant at the senior center, the 73-year-old was in the same position."In 2002 I lost my home," she said. "My husband got sick, and we lost a lot of money. He had three years of cancer."Although she had worked her whole life, Berroa said she could not find a job again."They didn't want to hire people my age," she said.So Berroa put a few treasured things in storage and moved into a shelter--the only way she could qualify for Section 202, a kind of federal housing subsidy to promote housing for low-income seniors.Now Berroa pays 30 percent of her monthly income as rent for an apartment in Harlem.Berroa's outcome is what Cutchogue, L.I. resident Robert Costanzo hopes he can offer to more elderly people in New York City and across the country. His nonprofit group, Be Safe At Home, focuses on providing seniors in the tri-state area with handymen, home maintenance and shopping services so they can continue living in their homes.But Costanzo hopes soon to start buying foreclosed homes and turning them into affordable housing for seniors.By converting residences purchased through the HUD foreclosure program, Costanzo said he will be able to provide housing and services for seniors at a lower cost than nursing homes or Section 8 housing assistance."Section 8 is an apartment," he said. "They have to rely on landlords to make the maintenance, they don't get shopping, they don't get any services. With us, for the same rent, we will be providing complete handyperson services, emergency service 24 hours a day, shopping and house cleaning. We don't have a mortgage, so we can offer more services."Costanzo's program is not off the ground yet - he and his grant writer are working to secure the funding - but if the money comes through, he hopes to buy his first home in a matter of months."I can envision that we will be able to get a house a month come April," he said. "I can see us owning in New York City alone maybe 1,000 houses or more."Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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