The lack of affordable housing for the growing senior population in the United States is on the verge of becoming a crisis. The country is not prepared to meet the housing needs of this aging group. Adults in the U.S. aged 50 and over is expected to grow to 133 million by 2030, an increase of more than 70 percent since 2000 according to a study by Harvard.

More than that, the expected increase over the next several decades of people living well into their 80s and 90s, and on fixed incomes, presents a huge problem for both aging policy and housing. Housing that is affordable, accessible and conveniently located is in very short supply. More than a third of older adults are paying more than 30% of their income solely for housing.

With expected increases in healthcare costs and a strain on retirement savings, this high cost can cause huge problems for the quality of life of older generations. High housing costs, aging homes, and costly repairs can greatly impact those with limited incomes.

Not only is cost a problem, but there are three other huge factors affecting quality of home life:

Much of the nation’s housing inventory lacks basic accessibility features, such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways, and lever-style door and faucet handles (Only 1% of U.S. housing units have all five), preventing older persons with disabilities from living safely and comfortably in their homes. No-step entryways appear in homes of only 46% of households headed by someone at least 50 years old and which have a person with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. This isn’t an easy solution, especially because cost is the main concern of this aging population. These updates can cost thousands in housing repairs.

Studies repeatedly show that the vast majority of people in their 50s and 60s say they want to “age in place,” remaining in their current homes as they get older. Unfortunately, with a majority of older adults aging in car-dependent suburban and rural locations, transportation and pedestrian infrastructure is generally ill-suited to those who aren’t able to drive, which can isolate them from friends and family. The expansion of car services and autonomous vehicles will make it more possible for the elderly and the carless to age in place.

What is the government doing to help?

Disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature institutionalization. While it is ultimately up to individuals and their families to plan for future housing needs, it is also incumbent upon policymakers at all levels of government to see that affordable, appropriate housing, as well as supports for long-term aging in the community, are available for older adults across the income spectrum.

An increasing concern as the older population in the U.S. continues to swell are the younger baby boomers who are now in their 50s. With lower incomes, wealth, homeownership rates, and more debt than generations before them, members of this large age group may be unable to cover the costs of appropriate housing or long-term care.

Federally-subsidized rental housing is so scarce that few older renters live in such apartments. Nearly two-thirds of eligible renters aged 62 and older don’t receive rental subsidies. However, there are agents at work for change:

  • The U.S. Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services agencies have funded 13 state agencies to provide rental subsidies to extremely low-income people with disabilities.
  • Ohio offers tax credits of up to $5,000 to homeowners making their residences more accessible;
  • Massachusetts provides loans of up to $30,000 for adding accessibility features;
  • States such as Colorado, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, and Utah give developers incentives to build affordable housing near mass transit.

But housing analysts say much more is needed.

Harvard’s Herbert would like to see the federal government offer more rental housing assistance for people over 62 now. Suburban communities also need to alter zoning rules to allow for more rental construction and accessory dwellings so elderly parents can live with their adult children.

It’s hard to make a case to expand rental housing assistance given today’s budget. Not doing so, however, will only put more budgetary pressure on Medicare and Medicaid as older Americans face higher health costs and are forced out of their homes and into long-term care facilities. 70 percent of those who reach the age of 65 will eventually need some form of long-term care.

A study of data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Medicaid, and Medicare in 12 areas around the United States found that the presence of an on-site service coordinator at senior housing centers reduced hospitalization rates for residents by 20 percent.

In preparation for this crisis, what other options are being considered?

One idea is the integration of low-income elderly housing in mixed-use developments. For example, MidCity, a Maryland-based company with a history of working on mixed-income projects, has an upcoming senior housing project in Washington, D.C.  including 373 apartments subsidized through HUD’s Section 8 program. It has secured approval for a redevelopment plan, called RIA, that calls for about 1,800 residential units—including the 373 affordable units—and 181,000 square feet) of retail space. The project also will include an affordable 200-unit senior building with high-end amenities such as a food pantry, computer labs, a business center, walking paths, and an outdoor courtyard. The property’s Section 8 contract will help subsidize the senior housing units, requiring residents to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.

What still needs to be done.

Communities will more probably work to make themselves more amenable to older residents. Addressing the needs of seniors will improve communities for everyone.

AARP’s Marsh Ryerson is optimistic that the crisis the Harvard study describes will be avoided. “Individuals, government and private organizations know that the problem is real and intend to come together for creative solutions,” she says. “We don’t have a choice. It is our obligation to care for our older population.”


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