Affordable Housing for Seniors in Woeful State of Emergency
May 24, 2017 Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz
affordable housing

America’s older population is about to explode, and the country is nowhere near ready to meet the evolving housing needs of its seniors.

Driven by the aging baby boom generation and increased longevity, the segment of the population aged 50 and over is projected to grow about 20 percent to 132 million in 2030, with those aged 65 to 74 nearly doubling from 21.7 million in 2010 to 38.6 million in 2030, an AARP-sponsored report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University concluded.

One in five people will be over the age of 50 in 2030, and one in eight people will be over the age of 75 by 2040, according to JCHS/AARP’s “Housing America’s Older Adults—Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population”.

Today’s seniors have lower incomes and homeownership rates and more debt than previous generations, making it more difficult for them to afford adequate housing. Low-income seniors are facing a severe affordable housing crisis and increased risk of ending up homeless, in nursing homes or hospitalized for medical conditions aggravated by the lack of affordable housing.

This profound demographic shift calls for immediate action from policy makers at all levels of government as well as nonprofit organizations, real estate developers, designers and the public in general meet the needs of our rapidly aging population.

SEVERELY COST-BURDENED SENIORS

Housing is the single largest expenditure most people face; therefore, housing costs have a huge impact on short- and long-term financial security.

Affordable housing is housing that does not exceed 30 percent of a household’s gross income. In 2012, a third of adults aged 50 and over (about 20 million households) paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing, including 9.6 million seniors who paid more than 50 percent of their income for housing.

Low-income seniors in particular have been overwhelmed by high rents and mortgage rates and the rising costs of utilities, maintenance and repairs. As a result, seniors spending 50 percent or more of their income in housing are cutting spending on necessities such as food, healthcare and transportation.

According to the JCHS/AARP report, severely cost-burdened seniors spend 43 percent less on food and 70 percent less (aged 50 to 64) and 59 percent less (aged 80 and over) on healthcare and retirement savings versus seniors living in housing they can afford.

Older homeowners have the advantage of lower housing costs and more wealth than renters. The typical homeowner aged 65 and over has enough wealth to cover nursing home costs for 42 months and enough non-housing wealth to last 15 months, while the median older renter cannot afford a single month in a nursing home, and only 18 percent could pay for nursing home care for more than a year, according to the report. While most older adults (88 percent according to an AARP survey) would like to stay in their homes, about 70 percent of them will end up in a long-term care facility.

Aging Americans must face yet another difficult fact of life: income drops with age. Senior households aged 80 and over have an average annual income of $25,000 compared to the typical income of households aged 50 to 64, which adds up to $60,300.

In 2013, 45 percent of adults aged 65 and older had incomes below twice the poverty levels under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, according to research by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. At that time, half of all people on Medicare had annual incomes below $23,500.

According to the National Council on Aging and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, seniors on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) receive on average $435 a month, while the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom home in the U.S. is $1,056 per month.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING GAP

In addition to the growing number of older adults and their shrinking incomes, housing that is affordable, physically accessible and well-located is in short supply, widening the affordable housing gap.

In 2011, 3.9 million low-income older adults were eligible for housing assistance, but only 1.4 million actually received it, the JCHS and AARP reported. Assisted senior housing wait times are two to three years, often more, with 10 seniors waiting for each affordable housing unit that becomes available.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness predicts the elderly homeless population will increase by 33 percent by 2020 and more than double by 2050. Aging and health issues, low incomes, isolation, high housing costs and the limited availability of subsidized affordable senior housing units are the main causes of homelessness among older Americans.

A 2016 study by the Alliance found that nearly 565,000 people in the U.S. are homeless, half of them over the age of 50. Like other seniors, these individuals face health and safety risks associated with age, including injuries from falls, cognitive impairment, vision or hearing loss, psychiatric disorders and chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. Their problems are greatly exacerbated by their homelessness.

As the older population expands, homelessness among low-income seniors is expected to escalate sharply.

UNFIT HOUSING FOR SENIORS

A majority of the available housing in the U.S. is not adequate for older adults, especially those with disabilities. Stairs are impossible to climb. Doorknobs can be difficult to grasp and turn when you have arthritis. Hallways appear darker to weakened eyes. Narrow doorways cannot accommodate wheelchairs. Missing or faulty temperature control leaves seniors too hot or too cold.

Only 1 percent of housing in the U.S. is suitable for disabled people, having incorporated all five universal design features: no-step entry, single-floor living, extra wide doorways and halls, accessible electrical controls and switches, and lever-style door and faucet handles. Two in five housing units have either none or only one of these features.

As a result, standard housing units are of little help to seniors and further widen the affordable housing gap. According to the JCHS, the number of older households with a disability will rise 76 percent to more than 31 million by 2035.

One reason housing units lack accessibility features is cost. Making the average home more accessible after the fact—by installing ramps, widening hallways and doorways or adding ground-floor bathrooms—requires extensive home renovations costing thousands of dollars. The price tag of adding an elevator starts at about $10,000 and often climbs beyond $20,000.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT TO THE RESCUE

A much larger older population means we must design, develop, fund and preserve affordable housing where older adults can live and age successfully in their own homes for as long as possible. To meet this challenge, we will need the support of federal and local governments, nonprofits, community groups and innovative business organizations.

As baby boomers age into their golden years, they will drive housing demand higher and higher. Regulatory changes that allow new housing options for older adults, new funding and creative solutions from designers and developers can produce affordable units that are accessible and better suited for seniors, units that would house future generations.

Urban designers can plan environments that work for every age group, including older adults who do not drive and who, therefore, need a variety of transit options and good pedestrian infrastructure. Housing developers can incorporate features and services that support seniors in new projects and add accessibility features to older units in order to accommodate disabilities that come with aging and deteriorating health.

Municipalities can adapt their building codes and zoning laws to stimulate development of low-income senior housing, allow construction of smaller units and offer tax breaks and incentives to reduce cost burdens and facilitate renovation of older homes.

Well-designed senior housing can appeal to all ages while being accessible to older adults at affordable prices. Accessibility features are important, but they are not everything. A vibrant environment with inviting gathering places, plenty of green areas, proximity to stores and public transportation, availability of in-home healthcare services, and friendly neighborhood connections add to the well-being of all residents and enable seniors to remain active and productive members of their communities.

OUR TO DO LIST

The way forward is challenging but rewarding. Among the options that should be on the table are the following:

  • Increasing supply of affordable senior housing
  • Obtaining additional federal rental assistance
  • Push for state and local tax incentives to encourage accessibility features
  • Push for zoning changes to support construction of accessory dwelling units
  • Integrate healthcare/wellness and supportive services in housing developments
  • Improve education programs, social activities and volunteer opportunities
  • Advocate for Medicare and Medicaid changes to facilitate long-term care in affordable and accessible housing

The affordable senior housing crisis is upon us. The standard of living in our cities will depend on our understanding of these significant demographic shifts and the steps we take to address the flaws in our housing system.

Everyone—older individuals and their families, communities, the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—must work together to develop new affordable housing, make older housing more affordable and accessible, and integrate supportive services in senior housing.

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