Averting a Housing Crisis and Shining a Light on Inequities in Elder Housing

Alisha Sanders headshot
Summer Generations Guest Editor Alisha Sanders

When asked about her motivation for guest-editing this Summer issue of Generations, Guest Editor Alisha Sanders said, “I wanted to help bridge two worlds­­–to help aging services people understand more about housing and to help housing people understand more about older adults.”

Sanders directs housing and services policy research at LeadingAge, in Washington, DC, and is thrilled that Generations chose to devote an edition of the journal to housing.

“Housing doesn’t often get emphasized in the aging services world,” said Sanders. “My intent with this collection of articles was to keep the focus on ‘housing’ and not slide into residential care settings. That’s not to say those settings aren’t crucial, and of course there are important policy and practice issues to address in that realm. But I wanted to recognize the key role of the ‘shelters’ in which most older adults live, to help people to fully understand the housing situations of older adults, where gaps exist and which issues need addressing,” she added.

At LeadingAge, Sanders studies programs and models that link affordable senior housing communities with health and supportive services. With colleagues and partner organizations, they’ve built a new knowledge and evidence base on the implementation and outcomes of these initiatives to help foster their spread.

“I’ve always been passionate about housing policy, and sort of ‘fell into’ the older adult aspect,” Sanders said. She stayed in the older adult arena, however, because she’s intrigued by the way housing intersects with other aspects of older adults’ lives, and how central the combination can be to quality of life, especially for low-income older adults.

‘I wanted to recognize the key role of the “shelters” in which most older adults live.’

Sanders also feels it is critical to recognize older adults in housing discussions, as currently they are often left out. A perception remains that older adults tend to live in stable situations in housing they own. But older adults face significant gaps in access to quality, affordable housing, and many live in precarious situations. And there are a burgeoning number of older adults with no housing at all. Plus, as the work LeadingAge and others have done has shown, housing can play a key role in addressing social and health needs as well.

“I hope these articles will help to reveal the significant implications housing policy has on other aspects of life, particularly for persons of color. Current U.S. housing policy is strongly intertwined with economic opportunity and security, which is clearly shown in the disparities in homeownership rates, home values, and wealth between white older adults and black older adults,” said Sanders.

She points to a recent study showing that homeowners in previously redlined neighborhoods—in which, until 1968, federal government policy effectively denied mortgage loans to people of color—have gained 52 percent less in home equity over the past 40 years than homeowners in previously greenlined areas.

“Home equity is a key component of wealth in this country,” said Sanders. “And this study found that black homeowners today are about five times more likely to own a home in a formerly redlined area than a greenlined neighborhood. So many black homeowners are not able to realize the same potential wealth-building benefit as white homeowners because they have been tracked into segregated neighborhoods that have faced decades of underinvestment.

Many older adults will be unable to afford the care they will need as they age in the years to come, and housing is at least one contributor to this lack of funds. Many elders of color would have been denied the opportunity to purchase a home or would have been limited to neighborhoods that experienced and continued to experience years of disinvestment, thus earning far less in home equity. To the extent that an older adult may tap into home equity or sell a home to help support care needs, this source of funds is limited for those whose housing equity opportunities have been curtailed. 

Black homeowners are about five times more likely to own a home in a formerly redlined area.

Of course, for many older adults who were lower-wage workers over their lifetime, buying a home was never an option. Many of these older adults tend to rely largely on Social Security for their retirement income. According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security makes up 90 percent or more of the income for 45 percent of unmarried older adults. In May 2020, the average monthly benefit for retired workers was $1,512. Given high rent costs across the country, it is clear that many lower-income renters will struggle to find affordable options. 

Sanders encourages ASA members to become allies to housing advocates and help push for expansions in rental subsidies, learn more about local or state housing advocacy organizations to build collaborations, and get out and help advocate for better housing policies, building and land use regulations, and funding initiatives.   “An older adults’ housing situation can have implications on their health, functionality, and quality of life--all of which many ASA members are addressing,” said Sanders. The success and optimization of the services they are providing can be intertwined with the safety and quality, accessibility, and affordability of their constituents’ housing. Sanders hope this collection of articles will help build ASA members’ understanding of housing issues and the connection they can have to their work.