Nation’s Housing Stock Should Reflect Needs of Increasing Number of Older Adults

Published by Peter Lawrence on Wednesday, December 21, 2022 - 12:00am

More attention is being paid to housing issues facing older adults as this segment of the population continues to grow. The United States’ population is aging, with more people over 65 than under 15.

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) uses the term older adults, meaning those 65 or older. In contrast, most federal housing programs define seniors as those 62 and older. For simplicity’s sake, this blog will refer to older adults as people 65 and older. Additionally, the population of those over 80 is estimated to grow to 24 million people by 2035. Due to these demographic shifts, the demand for senior housing, especially affordable senior housing, is expected to grow tremendously.

The JCHS held a recent webinar series focused on policy innovations within older adult housing. This research comes from a report on pandemic housing resources for older adults. These pandemic resources were intended to be temporary, but they could lead to a permanent change in supporting older adults. The last installment of the webinar focused on how to invest in place so that older adults can age in place. Additionally, the use of the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) can finance the development of additional housing supply, which would create an affordable housing option for seniors. The National Council of State Housing Agencies’ (NCSHA’s) 2021 Factbook includes information on the use of LIHTC for special populations. NCSHA found that virtually all state agencies used LIHTCs for elderly housing needs to some extent. Across all states, an average of 24.4% of LIHTCs were used to finance elderly housing. This equates to approximately 36,400 homes.

Housing Challenges Facing Older Americans

There are several challenges with the nation’s existing housing situation for older adults. According to a JCHS article, more than 10 million households with residents 65 and older are paying more than half of their income on housing. According to the JCHS, there are 2.2 million older, low-income renter households experiencing worst-case housing, which can be described as severe cost burdens and inadequate housing. Most eligible older adults don’t receive the federal housing assistance that they need, with only 36% of eligible households receiving assistance, according to the JCHS.

In the JCHS’ Housing America’s Older Adults 2019 report, research shows that older adults want to age in place by aging within a community instead of an institution, but current housing policy research suggests the necessary housing stock does not exist to accommodate this desire. Of the existing stock, the accessibility features required by some older households, including a no-step entry, single-floor living and wheelchair accessible hallways and doors, is not present. One way to address these issues is to focus on encouraging aging in place through community planning, specifically by changing zoning regulations to accommodate senior living.

The pandemic worsened challenges for older adults and seniors, and housing affordability for both worsened due to lost income. JCHS’s housing and health equity report determined that housing is a centerpiece for older adult care and approaches to housing must be centered around housing and community. Additionally, the report found that after the pandemic, housing design for older adults was of increased importance. Older adults valued access to nature, fresh air, digital equity, flexible spaces and an inclusive neighborhood design. Seniors are also in search of larger units for social distancing and family visits. Lastly, policy approaches must be multidimensional to include housing stability, quality, affordability and accessibility.

Aging in Place, Providing Options to Older Adults

The concept of aging in place focuses on older adults having housing options to remain in the community where they live. The last installment of the JCHS webinar series explored findings from the Advancing Housing and Health Equity for Older Adults: Pandemic Innovations and Policy Ideas report, and discussed solutions. Panelists included Jennifer Molinksy of JCHS, Paul McGarry of the Greater Manchester Aging Hub, Steven Lovci of Phipps Houses and Andrew Clark of the University of Salford. The main point of the panel was that older adults should have housing options. These housing options need to be broader than a nursing home or remaining in their current home. Panelists agreed with the idea that older adults want to be in places where they can engage with the social life and have transportation and health care options nearby. Molinksy brought forth the issue of older adults in rural areas seeking affordable and accessible housing, and panelists agreed that rural areas will have different challenges when it comes to senior housing.

One of the challenges to creating a housing stock for older adults identified during the webinar is developer regulations. Panelists stated that developers are bound to mandates and guidelines from their financing sources or from other regulations, such as zoning. This prevents the developer from truly putting older adults’ preferences first. Additionally, regulations from affordable housing subsidies may also be a roadblock for the developer. Panelists agreed that while subsidies are needed to build units and keep rent low, changes need to be made to include increased flexibility. In summary, panelists saw a need to connect what we know about the aging population to practical programs.

The Future of Older Adult Housing

Baby boomers are currently increasing the demand for senior housing and this trend is expected to continue. Additionally, the ratio of adult children who choose to remain as caregivers to their older family members is declining. As baby boomers exit the housing market—either through the sale of their existing homes or death—they will create a small number of excess homes, approximately 250,000 homes annually until 2032. These demographic and social changes demonstrate a need for additional senior housing options other than nursing homes.

While affordable senior housing is needed, there is a segment of the population that will want higher-end options. In terms of preferences, baby boomers prefer luxury senior living in urban areas, according to the Wall Street Journal. Older adults will want a variety of options for entertainment, dining and shopping close by. For developers, it will be much more expensive to create senior living in cities than the suburbs. For a solution, some developers are considering redeveloping old office buildings. The Wall Street Journal predicts an increase in high income seniors, which will contribute to the desire for luxury housing.

Looking Forward, The Importance of Affordable Housing for Older Adults

Evidence shows that there is not sufficient existing affordable housing stock for the aging population of the United States. The report and webinar series detailed above demonstrate a need to increase the affordable housing supply to provide older adults housing options to age in place. Given that the population of older adults will increase, it will be important to look to current affordable housing solutions, such as the LIHTC, and the proposed neighborhood homes tax credit. Additionally, funding guidelines should be revisited to give developer’s the flexibility to prioritize older adults’ needs, which could lead to increased construction of senior targeted housing. The older adult population, especially low-income seniors, is a vulnerable group in terms of housing security, and  the JCHS report and webinars serve as an important reminder of this need.