Waiting and praying: One senior in Clarkston's story to find affordable housing

Marsha Burges, a resident at Starnes Senior Residences, sits comfortably on her couch. (LaShawn Hudson/WABE)

You can feel the spirit of gratitude throughout every square inch of Marsha Burges’s one-bedroom apartment.

Her most prized possession is a tan queen-sized quilt that has photos of her family on it. The letters on the blanket read: “Grandma’s Hearts.”

The 74-year-old, who is now a resident at Starnes Senior Residences in Clarkston, Georgia, says it was deep love for family and the pursuit of the American Dream that led her and her husband and their two children to relocate nearly 700 miles away south to The Peach State more than two decades ago.

When the family arrived, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native and entrepreneur planned to open another beauty salon like the one she had in her hometown, but that dream was deferred, and she ended up taking on other managerial professional roles to help provide for her family.

Over time, the Burges’ built a solid life together. Her husband bought the family six-bedroom home, and the couple raised two generations—their children and grandchildren—in their home.

And for most of the couple’s 56-year marriage, Burges’ husband was the breadwinner.

But roughly seven years ago, things changed, and she found her marriage at a crossroads; the newly separated mother found herself without a place to live.

“I went the Housing Authority of DeKalb County,” said Burges. “I submitted an application in 2018. I was told I was going to be on a waiting list, so from there I was checking often to see if I was getting closer to being picked up for housing, seem like it was going on and on and I didn’t hear anything.”

After three years of waiting and praying for a miracle, in 2020, Burges applied for the Project-Based Voucher (PBV). She was approved, got her keys and moved into Starnes Senior Residences, a state-of-the-art senior living facility owned by the Housing Authority of DeKalb County.

The four-story mid-rise building has 128- small one-bedroom apartments. In 2021, only ten residents received PBV vouchers from the Housing Authority when it opened.

Sybil Pinson oversees the Housing Choice Voucher program at the Housing Authority of DeKalb County. She says Burges’ experience is not unique, and it’s not unusual for seniors to wait years for housing because of a lack of availability. She says there are more than 20,000 people waiting for housing.

“Seniors are just more stable; they don’t move as frequently, so we often, you know, have very few vacancies and opportunities for seniors to come off the waiting lists onto the property,” explained Pinson.

It’s a similar waiting list crisis happening in Atlanta. Eugene Jones Jr., the CEO and president of the Housing Authority for the City of Atlanta, says his agency provides subsidies to seniors, paying 70% of a senior’s rent– but on average, people are on their housing waiting lists between 5 to 7 years for the Housing Choice Voucher program and for public housing units that the agency owns.

Seniors struggling to find housing is not only a micro problem in Georgia. It’s a macro problem that’s happening across the nation. Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests seniors face a number of housing obstacles when trying to find affordable housing.

Georgia’s aging population of people 65 and older is expected to increase from 1.3 million to nearly 3 million by 2040, potentially widening Georgia’s senior housing crisis.

Right now, it appears there aren’t really any solid solutions to eradicating the crisis, but lawmakers are acting. In 2019, the House Study Committee on Innovative Financial Options for Senior Living released nine recommendations: one called for the federal government to address Georgia’s aging homeless population and increase tax credits for older adults. U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff is also pushing for more local, state, and federal government policies to expand the housing supply for Georgia seniors.

A crisis, a stalled waiting list and an answered prayer, Burges has experienced all three. The great-grandmother says she’s forever grateful to have safe, secure and affordable housing.

“Through the grace of God, I made it through,” she exclaimed. “And being here at Starnes has been a wonderful place for me to live. I love everything about it.”

The Housing Authority of DeKalb County’s “Near-Elderly” (55+) Project-Based Voucher (PBV) waiting list for the Retreat at Spring Hill will open on Friday, June 2, 2023. You can find more information here.

This interview was conducted with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and The Commonwealth Fund.