September 17, 2014

Harvard Outlines Looming Housing Crisis for Seniors

On September 2, 2014, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies & AARP Foundation released the results of a study that reports some troubling news: The USA faces a lack of affordable, physically accessible housing for seniors, particularly those with limited resources.

It’s a perfect storm in the making, as Baby Boomers – the nation’s largest-ever generation – speed into their senior years. They’re living longer, too, than any generation before them.

By 2030, 20 percent of all Americans will be 65+. By 2040, there will be an astonishing 28 million Americans 80+. That’s a lot of seniors.

“If things don’t change, low-income older people will be compromising their well-being in many respects. It’s an issue that will affect us all,” said Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The study highlighted three particular issues.

1) The Cost of Renting or Owning a Home is Already High
Yes, housing costs are very high, and they will only increase. For millions of seniors, especially those on fixed incomes, just keeping pace with those rising costs isn't possible.

About 33% of Americans 50+ – and 37 percent of those 80+ – spend one third of their income on housing. That leaves little for all the other necessities, especially the most expensive ones – food and healthcare.

Seniors 80+ in financially-strapped households spend 59 percent less on healthcare every month than their counterparts who are fortunate enough to have affordable housing.

There are woefully insufficient federally subsidized rentals, and not many seniors in them. The Harvard/AARP study reports that of all seniors 62 and older who are eligible to receive rental subsidies, only one in three are living in such properties. The other two thirds are making due as best they can.

2) American Want to Age in Place, But They’re Not Living in the Right Places
I’ve written before about “aging in place.” Seniors rank the opportunity to remain in their own homes right up there with maintaining good health. We’ve seen studies that report improved health and happiness for seniors who live in their own homes. 

We’ve also seen a recent study that showed – among other drawbacks – that nursing homes over-medicate their residents, particularly with anti-psychotic drugs, in order to better control them. We’ve seen discussions about innovative ways to help seniors to age in place. There are new electronic gizmos that help seniors stay where they are.

There’s just one problem: most older adults live in the suburbs, and depend on cars to get around. I know from experience: the time comes when we should no longer drive, for our own – and others’ -- safety. The risk of being stuck at home and isolated is loneliness – which studies show can kill.

One in four 80+ households do not have cars.  Many others live in homes they love in small towns or in the country and do not have access to – or money for -- public transit.

Jonathan Smoke, Chief Economist at the National Association of Realtors’ website, said “It’s a conundrum. Seniors today, and most likely tomorrow, are living in places that are not ideal to enjoy fulfilling lives as we age.”

3) Homes Aren’t Suited to the Physical Challenges of Many Older Americans
The Harvard report’s final red flag: Too many homes and apartments lack basic accessibility features that would enable older adults – especially seniors with disabilities – to age safely and comfortably in their own homes.

Housing experts define these 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.

Only one percent of all housing units provide all five of those senior-friendly features. Only 57 percent of homes have more than one of them.

In households headed by someone at least 50 -- and which also include a person with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs – only 46 percent have no-step entryways.

So Much More to Do
AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson said, “There have been some interesting solutions percolating. And more will come down the road.” Here are several innovations she mentioned:
  • 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, Orgegon, Texas and Utah give developers incentives to build affordable housing near mass transit.
  • Volunteers at the Rebuilding Together nonprofit made 42,000 homes more accessible in 2013.
That’s a start.

Harvard’s Chris Hebert offered a few more recommendations to help avert the developing crisis:
  • The federal government must offer more rental housing assistance for adults 62+.
  • Suburban communities must adjust zoning regulations to permit construction of more “granny flats,” add-ons to existing homes where grandparents could live with their adult children.
Budgets are already pinched, and ear-marking more money for senior assistance might be difficult. But if that additional support doesn’t happen, Hebert says Medicare and Medicaid will feel much more pressure as older Americans face higher health costs and are forced out of their homes and into long-term care facilities.’s Jonathan Smoke offered this assessment:
Washington is not a place where people have been working together on positive solutions over the last few years. What the Harvard and AARP study is doing is shining a light to show that it’s time to work together on these issues.

He added that expanding tax credits and financial incentives to make homes more accessible “is a no-brainer.”

AARP’s Marsh Ryerson seemed hopeful about the senior housing challenge:
Individuals, government and private organizations know that the problem is real and intend to come together for creative solutions. We don’t have a choice. It is our obligation to care for our older population.

We’ll see.

<>  <>  <>  <>  <>  <>  <>

This information was covered in an excellent blog post by Richard Eisenberg, senior web editor at Next Avenue.

No comments: