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Video: State Leaders Taking Action

A conversation from the 2022 AARP Livable Communities Housing Workshop

  • Susan DeMarois was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to serve as the director of the California Department of Aging. She is preparing the state for the year 2030, by which time 1 in 4 Californians will be age 60 or older. 

  • Justin Wayne was elected to the Nebraska State Senate in 2016. He introduced the state's "Municipal Density and Missing Middle Housing Act," which was adopted in 2020.

  • Moderator: Todd Stubbendieck is the State Director of AARP Nebraska.

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The presentation transcript was created by an automated transcription tool. Anyone looking to quote or use information from the event is advised to compare the text to the video recording. 

Rodney Harrell: Welcome back everyone. Now I hope you enjoyed seeing some of that fantastic work from across the country as much as I did. But now we're about to hear from two state leaders in a moderated conversation featuring how they are making time to take action and make transformative change in housing in their states. So remember, to ask your questions of the panel, please go ahead and start entering them in Slido on the Q&A tab.

It's my great pleasure at this point to introduce our next moderator, Todd Stubbendieck, state director of AARP Nebraska, to moderate that next panel discussion. Todd, over to you.

Todd Stubbendieck: Thank you very much. I'm excited to be talking to two really impactful state leaders. First, we'll have Susan DeMarois, who was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsome to serve as Director of the California Department of Aging. She's committed to stakeholder engagement, equity inclusion, and system transformations to prepare the state for the year 2030, when 1 in 4 Californians will be aged 60 and older.

Also joining us today will be Senator Justin Wayne, who was elected to the Nebraska Legislature for District 13, which is in the Omaha metro area, in the 2016 Nebraska elections. Senator Wayne is the chair of the Urban Affairs Committee and introduced the Municipal Density and Missing Middle Housing Act, which was adopted in 2020.

Before I ask questions of our two panelists, we're going to ask our viewers a question through Slido. In this session, we're going to be talking about how state leaders are taking action to make transformative changes in the housing landscape in their states. What's one top policy priority that you wish your state government leaders would take action on to encourage healthy housing markets and better meet the needs of people all ages and abilities? Go ahead and answer that through Slido. And once we get a few of the results in, I'll go ahead and ask Susan and Senator Wayne to give us their thoughts and impressions.

Answers are coming in here. Variety has jumped to the top there. Some zoning. I saw Missing Middle Housing. Affordable housing as well. I'm going to go ahead and ask Susan as the answers are coming in, as you look at that word cloud, Susan, is there anything that strikes you, surprises you, or things that you see?

Susan DeMarois: All of the important topics being listed here, and I want to thank everybody for contributing these thoughts, and you're really showing that housing is a very complex and far-reaching topic. And I'm so glad that AARP is focusing on this today. Definitely affordable housing, rent control is something we're looking at in the months ahead as some of the rental protections expire that are related to the COVID pandemic.

Todd Stubbendieck: Very good. Senator Wayne, is there something that you see in that word cloud that surprises you or themes that you can take out of it?

Justin Wayne: Not so much surprises me. This is one of these areas for the last six years we've been dealing with affordable housing, zoning, all those issues and just trying to work through them from small towns to Omaha, which is our urban city. So it looks like it's the same list that we've been struggling with for the last six years as a state.

Todd Stubbendieck: Very good. I'm going to move into my first question, and it's going to be for Senator Wayne. With boomers retiring and downsizing their homes, and a high percentage of people are living alone or as couples, Nebraska, like so many other states, is really feeling the acute lack of housing choice and affordability. In an effort to address these challenges, you introduced, and I'll say AARP Nebraska supported, and the state legislature passed, a Municipal Density and Missing Middle Housing Act. It was enacted in 2020, and the legislation seeks to encourage zoning regulation adjustments that will allow for more small scale, multifamily housing in 11 of the state's largest communities, each of which is now required to assess and report on their existing zoning and housing stock, and then develop a housing action plan for implementing needed solutions. The first of these housing action plans will be coming in early next year, Why was this legislation so critical for Nebraska, and what sort of impacts have you seen so far?

Justin Wayne: Well, first, I want to thank you for having me. I think this is a very important conversation that we continue to have. The reason we introduced this bill and the reason we pushed it forward was, as we started having these conversations across the state, we really didn't know what our housing stock really was. We weren't sure of all the issues, and we wanted to make sure we didn't take such a top down approach, which the initial bill kind of was, where we were going to remove some authority from local jurisdictions to make it easier to do these type of dwelling units to more of, okay, then tell us how you're going to solve this problem.

And so we're starting to see some of this collaboration and innovative thought around zoning and housing and single-family housing, multipurpose housing. And so now,  we're just starting to see and get a feel for that, but what that also did, the first year, because we had such a huge conversation, is this year and over the next two years, we'll be investing over $128 million into affordable housing, rural workforce housing. So this just gave us a good framework to have that bigger conversation and allow for us to start funding, at a state level, more housing.

Todd Stubbendieck: Thank you, Senator Wayne. Let me turn to Susan. In January 2021, Governor Newsome unveiled the California Master Plan for Aging. It's an agenda aimed at preparing America's most populace state for a massive demographic change over the coming decade. The Master Plan for Aging outlines five bold goals as they're officially designated, along with 23 long-term strategies and more than 100 initiatives meant to launch within two years. The first of these bold goals is housing for all stages and ages, specifically to provide millions of new housing units where residents can age well. A couple questions around that. Why the emphasis on housing in a master plan for aging? What strategies have been particularly effective in addressing those challenges and what did you learn in the first, in the past year or two, as this gets implemented?

Susan DeMarois: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for the invitation to join you today. I want to thank AARP for being a fantastic partner in California in developing and implementing our Master Plan for Aging. As you just heard, goal number one is focused on housing and that's not typical of state aging plans. In our state, our governor and our legislature believe that housing is health, and health is housing, so we're very focused on a multitude of housing opportunities, absolutely increasing the stock and supply of affordable housing units of all types and all sizes in rural and urban areas of our state, preserving housing so that individuals who are housed and precariously housed can remain in their homes, and focusing on our increasing homelessness population.

Data suggests that the 50 and older population is among the fastest growing homeless cohorts in our state. So we're looking at a variety of solutions from accessory dwelling units, bringing supportive services into affordable housing, HUD affordable housing, so that we have more wraparound services to keep people aging in place. We're also looking at community care expansion in some of our boarding care and assisted-living communities. We have Project Home Safe to allow people who may be in Adult Protective Services to have safe housing. And then we have Project Home Key, which is another initiative that has looked at temporary housing and converting temporary housing into permanent housing.

We're very proud that our master plan focuses on both housing and affordability, so we're looking at housing across the full continuum and the complete spectrum.

Todd Stubbendieck: Great, thank you, Susan. Let's talk a little bit about ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] then. Susan, I'll stick with you first. The American rescue plan, which we all know is a once in a generation funding opportunity to strengthen communities for the future, a key component of that is the state and local fiscal recovery funds. It contains $350 billion that state and local governments can use to address ongoing challenges, including housing. How is your state leveraging this federal funding to address critical housing issues from homelessness to affordability, to workforce housing? And how do you engage residents, including older adults, in making those funding determinations? Susan.

Susan DeMarois: We're fortunate and so grateful for the federal support that we've received, and as well as the support from our state legislature and our governor, to address the housing crisis. Several of the options in terms of engaging older adults and people with disabilities and the solutions, we're fortunate in California to have our Master Plan for Aging process, and we use our state Olmstead Advisory Committee, which in our state is called The Disability and Aging Community Living Advisory Committee, to really lift up and elevate the voice of older adults, people with disabilities, and family caregivers to make sure that their housing needs and concerns are addressed in all of the activities across our state government. I'm also privileged to serve on our state's Inner Agency Council on Homelessness. I'm very proud that in California this council includes the director of the State Department of Aging to make sure that there is a voice at the table representing older adults, people with disabilities, and family caregivers. We really encourage through California, which is one of the AARP designated age-friendly states and communities, so we work with our local communities and partners in our counties and cities with their local housing action plans, and we really encourage our network of aging organizations and advocates to be at the table locally to influence those plans and to make sure they're tailored to local needs.

Todd Stubbendieck: Thank you. Senator Wayne, we've caught you at a unique moment in the fact that, I know, you're very busy this week with four public hearings in the Omaha area on ARPA funding that you've designated in Omaha. Could you tell us a little bit about your plans for that ARPA funding when it comes to housing and what you're hearing in these public hearings that you've been holding?

Justin Wayne: Well, yeah, it's a busy week. We have another one this evening and another one tomorrow. So far as ARPA in general, well as far as, let's back up to the state of Nebraska, like I said earlier, we have about $128 million going in. We used $30 million of cash reserve funds for rural workforce housing and additional $10 million of ARPA dollars. We're doing $20.5 million of low-income housing tax credit programs through ARPA dollars. What was unique this year is we recognized we have a large refugee community, so we're doing about $8 million of ARPA funds for refugee housing, which is a little bit different housing, $20 million in middle-income housing for Omaha and Lincoln area, and then we set aside currently, out of the [?] set for Omaha, we set aside already $20 million for affordable housing.

Over the last couple of days in public hearings, we've been hearing a lot about affordable housing and just housing in general. There's a need for not only workforce housing but single-family homes. So one of the goals behind LB-1024, which is our ARPA funding requests for Omaha, which is around $350 million, the state has been putting into East Omaha which is our poverty stricken area.

We are hearing a lot about housing in general, but also single-family homes for wealth building, but a part of that single-family home, there's a project in Omaha that's in my district that's going to do about 80 units of which many of those are going to have accessory dwellings, and so we're really excited about that because as we see our aging population in Omaha, they want us to stay with their family, they want to do things with their family, and so we're looking to put around $8 to $10 million behind that effort. I think right now we've been talking to the governor's office quite a bit about those efforts, and so we are definitely loading up on housing, just workforce housing, affordable housing, but a part of this conversation is our seniors, and we have been trying to figure out, as our aging population continues to grow in Nebraska, what does that housing look like? So we've had meetings with the City of Omaha, we've had meetings in Lincoln. As a state we are just trying to have as many meetings as we can to figure out a plan for next year to see how we tackle it again. So we've got one booster shot going in this year with ARPA funds, and we're trying to figure out how to do another next year.

Todd Stubbendieck: I'll take a point of personal privilege, Senator Wayne. I plan to be at tomorrow's hearing to talk about age-appropriate age-friendly housing options, including some Missing Middle Housing resources that AARP has. So I hope to see you tomorrow at tomorrow's hearing.

I'm told this is the rapid fire round in which we ask our guests to keep their responses to one minute. I'm going to go ahead and stay with Justin Wayne. Throughout this workshop we want to equip participants with tools and resources and strategies for getting work done in their communities. With that in mind, what should we each be ready to do differently as a result of this?

Justin Wayne: So I think, instead of just having the conversation around housing, we need to talk about how the housing is built. I think to get more people on board about housing, we need to talk about local contractors, growing small minority businesses, and scaling up the workforce around us. I think if we start having a holistic approach about the ecosystem of housing, then I think we get more people to [inaudible] more resources, because it doesn't just become a housing project, it becomes an economic project. How I think we keep moving this needle forward is, it isn't just housing, it's overall economic development.

Todd Stubbendieck: Very good. Susan, same question. What should we be ready to do differently as a result of today's panel?

Susan DeMarois: I think we're seeing a lot of activity at the federal and state level in terms of massive investments in housing. What I'm not seeing so much of is local voices at the city and county level. I think the older adult population is not well represented. "When it comes to local planning and prioritizing how state and federal dollars are spent, local leaders are not always hearing from senior voices. They're an invisible segment that is in dire need of low-income affordable and middle-income housing, as well as more housing options, especially housing with transportation and wraparound supportive services. I think to the extent that listeners can become more active in housing conversations at the city and county level, it will go a long way to make sure those dollars will go into our communities.

When it comes to local planning and prioritizing how state and federal dollars are spent, local leaders are not always hearing from senior voices. They're an invisible segment that is in dire need of low-income affordable and middle-income housing, well as more housing options, especially housing with transportation and wraparound supportive services. I think to the extent that your listeners can become more active in housing conversations at the city and county level, it will go a long way to make sure those dollars will go into our communities.

Todd Stubbendieck: Thank you.

Mike Watson: Now it is time to ask your questions to our incredible panelists that we just heard from. Remember, if you'd like to ask your question, please use the Slido Q&A function. I've been looking at them coming in and we have several good ones in already. One of the things I want to pick up on is a point that Susan and Senator Wayne just made which is around engagement and making their voices heard. Todd, we heard how you're going to ensure that older Nebraskans are making their voices heard at tomorrow's hearing, and Susan, you kind of mentioned how ensuring that local leaders are hearing from older adults and hearing from residents is really important in these discussions. You're talking to folks from across the country who represent older adults and are working on behalf of them. Is there any guidance that you give us, that you give folks who are listening today who are doing local level work to get in front of their local officials or their state officials to encourage that conversation? Susan, I'll start with you and then go to you, Senator Wayne.

Susan DeMarois: Sure, and I know I've got a group on this call that can be really powerful locally. You know, I would start by your city or county and googling your housing authority. I'm sure there are public meetings coming up. We heard about some happening in Nebraska this week. And turn out for those meetings. And a goal of ours is to make sure, I think some people believe that all people over 50 or 55 or 60, whatever the age, have similar needs and situations, and if we can illustrate that that is not the case, that older adults are a diverse population that have a wide range of needs and income levels, and to point out where those needs exist and to make sure that in public settings it's heard by all.

Mike Watson: Very well said. Older adults are not a monolith. Senator Wayne, what would you like to add from your experience?

Justin Wayne: The big thing, and I think AARP does a great job in Nebraska is having the conversation before the money is there. Having a conversation before government decides they want to do something. Oftentimes too many organizations come in after a bill has already been written or passed, and it becomes very difficult. So I would say start now to have the conversation about next year. What do you want your community to look like, engage local and county and state officials now, and then make sure you have a plan to stay engaged over the next year. To me, it's all about starting as soon as possible for the next round, not to say that there's not opportunities this round, but I think it's easier if you start also planning for the next round.

Mike Watson: That is absolutely fantastic guidance. I was trying to write some of it down here to make sure we don't lose it. On that note, and we're thinking of kind of the next round and the folks who are kind of doing some of this development, we have several questions here in the Chat and Q&A around private developers. So can you share a little bit about how folks who are tuning in today, and also from your perspective, how can we encourage private developers to think about accessible age-friendly housing as they're pursuing development in communities across the country? Susan, let's start with you and then go to you, Senator Wayne.

Susan DeMarois: Great. So this is, you know, absolutely solving the housing crisis is a public/private, we need public/private solutions, so private developers. I think in many communities, senior housing is very attractive, a very attractive addition to the community. So I think that would be my suggestion is I think it's probably outside of the city and county and state government, it would probably be difficult for advocates to make contact with private developers, but when you attend those town hall and community forums, often that's where public and private partners come together, and they identify strong community based organizations. Sometimes the faith community that might be excellent partners in developing housing, bringing in supports like the program for All Inclusive Care for the Elderly, co-existing communities supports alongside housing and building partnerships with health system.

Mike Watson: Very, very good point. Sounds like a lot of conversations and building those relationships with folks across sectors. Senator Wayne, what would you like to add to that?

Justin Wayne: I agree with that. I think what we've done this year in Nebraska is we've actually opened up many of our funding opportunities to private developers, and our approach is we need all hands on deck. So we're going to take everybody that's willing to help and so we do have to find ways to incentivize the private sector to get involved. And we do that in a lot of other industries, especially around tech and research, not only take that same approach to affordable housing and housing, how do we incentivize the private market to get involved and make sure we do this.

So unlike other industries, this is an industry that kind of goes up and down depending on the economy, so we have to make sure we have consistent and reasonable incentives to get the private industry involved.

Mike Watson: Very, very good points there, Senator Wayne. And I think we're also seeing, we'll kind of move onto our next question now, we're seeing a lot of questions here. Anytime we have statewide officials on, or local officials on, we see a lot of questions with folks wanting advice. So we have another question here asking for your advice and guidance. And one of them is around the political differences on these issues. How do we talk across the political differences around affordability and specifically zoning changes that are needed to address affordability? Senator Wayne, let's start with you and then go to you, Susan.

Justin Wayne: That is one of the most interesting and most difficult areas is the local control of zoning, but at the same time the need for a statewide movement on this issue. And so we've just been having an awful lot of conversations, the bill referenced here was a compromise bill between, it started off as removing a lot of zoning to try to make it more affordable. And it ended with something a little bit different or a lot different really, that's part of the negotiation process. So I think it comes down to having more conversations about this, and again, engaging the private sector, but I also think it's about the community. If the community is demanding from its elected officials to solve this problem, those issues become a lot easier to navigate from a political perspective. And so those are the things that what we're trying to do is to get more people engaged to make sure they can continue to talk to the local elected officials so the state can be a partner in solving this problem.

Mike Watson: Great point, Senator Wayne. Susan, do you want to add to that?

Susan DeMarois: Sure, so you know, in addition to the incredible power of AARP, there are other groups in our state, California, we have the Area Agency on Aging, Triple A Councils we call them. We have county commissions on aging. Often those groups are nested in local government in some way, and they're loosely affiliated with the city or the county, so I would lean into those groups and make sure that AARP is represented on those commissions. Often the county is the front door for the challenges be it health, housing, transportation, and they're keen on solving those problems with partners. So that's where I would start is to make sure that any formal city or county structures include AARP members and advocates for senior housing.

Mike Watson: All right, well if you're listening today, you heard it. Try to get involved locally. Look up your local boards, talk to your local elected officials and your state elected officials and find out where you can make your voice hear.

On that, we're kind of looking down the list of questions that are coming in. We have time for about two more. And one of them I want to talk a little bit about two states, the states that you both represent, have kind of rural areas as well as some dense, urban centers. And one of the questions that we're seeing is, how should, what are resources that can be available, or are available, for more rural areas who are trying to take action on affordable and accessible housing, and how do the approaches different when you look at different community types. Susan, let's start with you and then go to you, Senator Wayne.

Susan DeMarois: Great, we just hosted a big convening yesterday, and with over 500 people in attendance to celebrate our Master Plan for Aging and this very issue was front and center, our rural communities throughout California. I think we need to be creative with some of the solutions we're looking for in rural areas. Multigenerational housing, adult family homes, cohousing, looking at things that may not be on the scale that we would see in urban areas, but bring more options to the community and more solutions and how we can expand some of our existing settings to serve incrementally more individuals. So those are some of the things that we're looking at in our rural areas.

Mike Watson: Very well said, and congratulations on the Master Plan on Aging in California and the celebration. Really exciting news there. Senator Wayne, is there anything you'd like to share on that topic?

Justin Wayne: I think we start with the issue, so whether it's poverty, or whether it aging population, or whether it's education, what I've tried to do in the time in our legislature here is let's focus on what's the issue, then say, how do you solve that issue? And what we typically find out, especially in housing and other things is whether it's rural or urban, they're kind of the same. And so then once you get to people in the room to understand it, we're talking about pretty much the same person that a senior in Omaha might need the same thing as a senior in Grand Island or Sydney, Nebraska, or even in a county, then you kind of build that framework around. I think initially people walk in with this urban and rural divide, but once you understand that we're talking about people, and people need the same things no matter where they are, the conversation becomes different. So I would just tell people to step back and think about who we're talking about and what they actually need to be successful and have a happy life, and then you'll find out that we have a lot more in common than we have different.

Mike Watson: Very well said. I wish that was the question, the answer that we could close this out on. But we have one more, and one of the things that we're seeing, we've heard it throughout the day, as I mentioned earlier in the program, September's National Preparedness Month, and we have a few questions here are sustainability, but also on preparedness and disaster response. Can you talk, both of you, talk a little bit about how your states are approaching this from the housing angle. Any investments that have been made, or things that are kind of conversations that are happening and kind of future investments that are being planned. Senator Wayne, let's start with you, and then go to you, Susan.

Justin Wayne: From a state regarding preparedness, we're just starting to have that conversation. Our state wasn't affected from COVID and the pandemic as many other states were. We were still affected, but actually it was our rural community who had a bigger, I guess problem than necessarily we did, just because of the nature of the businesses and meat packing plants and those kind of things. So we're having conversations, but we're not really having a conversation that's geared towards a solution. I think we're still trying to identify what are some of the issues. Again, I've been in the legislature for six years, and we're just now having an inventory on what's really going on as far as housing across the state. So we have a lot of organizations who are now putting together data, we just haven't moved to solutions yet.

Mike Watson: That's great. That's a great place to start. It sounds like you're already moving on the solution dial as well, Senator. Susan, let's turn it over to you to answer that question, then we'll close out.

Susan DeMarois: Unfortunately, this is a topic we have a lot of experience within California. Just in the last few weeks we've had extreme heat events that have disproportionally impacted older adults. We've had a series of wildfires throughout our state, and going back to the last question, our rural communities are hardest hit by wildfire and people live more remote and may not have internet access to receive alerts and notifications. I'm very grateful to our governor and our legislature who funded two positions in the State Department of Aging focused on disaster planning and preparedness. And the reasons we have this month, is to take time to make sure everybody is prepared, and they know the resources that are available to them, that they have the phone numbers in place, that they have their go kits ready. There is so much we can do through our network to make sure people are ready for whatever strikes, a flood, mudslides, fire, earthquake, whatever the disastrous event is, that people are ready and prepared.

Something we're focused on is how we can do more outbound wellness checks to make sure people are okay short of evacuation orders. And we had great success in our state during the recent heat events where we used text messaging and asked people to cycle off their air conditioners during peak hours, and we were able to keep power on statewide during those extreme heat events which benefits everybody of all ages when our state is able to work together in disasters.

Mike Watson: Thank you, Susan, that was a really fantastic answer, and kind of underscored a comprehensive approach there. I want to thank you both for joining us so much. Senator Wayne, that was fantastic. Director DeMarois, that was wonderful as well, and Todd, thank you so much for moderating this conversation. It's been a really fantastic discussion, and a great way to close out our day today. And on that note, today just has been incredible. We've had some really fantastic discussions, some great panelists, and a lot of really fantastic learnings that we hope you all can take back to your community.

Now before we wrap, we want to hear from you again in Slido. So can you please tell us, on a scale of 1 to 5, did you get any new ideas, resources, or solutions to take back to your community from today's programming. That's on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being an enthusiastic definitely, and 1 being a eh, not so much. So while you're loading up those answers, we'll go ahead and start a little bit about our programming tomorrow. 

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