“During the Panic of 1893 . . . Mr. Rose had occasion to aid an aged couple [who] had been friends of his many years before . . . . They were left in their old age without any means of support.”
In response, Benjamin (a businessman) and Julia Rose, “created a real estate trust that would fund a foundation to enable . . . old people to stay in their home and maintain their comfort and dignity. . . .”
The Benjamin Rose Institute was one of the first charitable organizations in the United States established for the benefit of older adults. Its origin story begins with someone at risk of losing their home. More than a century later, housing continues to be a challenge for older adults.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness noted homelessness among older adults “is expected to nearly triple by 2030.” It is estimated that “nearly 1 in 5 people without a permanent address” in the United States are ages 55 or older. For persons who first experience homelessness at age 50 or older, the causes may include death of a partner, loss of income, health problems or cognitive impairments.
In its 2021 survey of home and community preferences, AARP found that more than three-quarters of adults ages 50 and older indicated a desire to age in place, despite worries about their ability to do so. Health and mobility concerns, housing costs and other factors can create challenges for older adults which prevent them from achieving this goal. As members of ASA’s Economic Security Advisory Council, we realize that strategies to promote financial security and individual dignity require attention when addressing the challenges of affordable, available and accessible housing for vulnerable populations.
A growing number of older adults struggle to find rental housing they can afford. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) 2023 memo to members, among extremely low-income households with 30% or less of the area median income, 72% are severely housing cost-burdened, meaning they are spending 50% or more of their income on rent. Older adults make up 30% of these extremely low-income households.
One in four older homeowners spend 50% or more of their income on rent.
The NLIHC also reported a dramatic spike in the annual change in median rental prices. Average monthly rents rose in 2022 by $179, compared to average increases of $31 in the preceding years. Rising rents were accompanied by growth in utility expenses, which rose by more than 14%.
One in four older homeowners are housing cost-burdened, a rate less than half that for renters in most communities. However, homeownership rates among older adults are much higher; two-thirds or more of older households own their homes. This population faces increasing maintenance and utility costs, as well as rising property values, and the associated increases in property taxes, which places some retirees at risk.
A growing number of the clients who reach out to our housing and financial counseling programs at Benjamin Rose carry mortgage debt or other loan obligations in retirement. An article in the September 2023 issue of Health Affairs projected, “By 2029, more than half of middle-income seniors (ages 75 or older) will have insufficient resources to cover housing and care needs.”
Americans in or nearing retirement also struggle to find available housing. A blog post on Apartments.com offers suggestions on how to go about getting on a waiting list for available senior housing. According to the site, the occupancy for market-rate apartments for older adults is “about 83 percent.” For subsidized housing programs, including HUD 202, Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and Housing Choice vouchers, waiting lists may extend for years.
The prospects for homeowners are challenging, too. For older adults seeking to downsize, or purchase a home in retirement, the market has changed dramatically. The average sales price of a “starter home” has increased since 2016 by 64%, a much steeper increase than that of larger houses. Downsizers compete for listed properties with first-time homebuyers and real estate investors. This increasing buyer demand also is accompanied by a decline in available housing stock. Realtor.com reported that between 2016 and 2021 active listings of starter homes dropped by 60%.
In addition to being able to find homes and afford them, older adults also need housing they can actually live in. Most housing in the United States presents challenges to entering or navigating the home. Stairs leading to outside entryways, sleeping rooms and bathrooms on upper floors, narrow hallways and interior doorways all limit options for aging in place for many older adults. The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that less than 5% of housing is accessible for persons with moderate mobility limitations. And less than 1% is accessible for wheelchair users. Federal guidelines for affordable housing units must meet Current Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). But Section 504 only requires 5% of units to be accessible.
Accessibility considerations also should include the environment around the home. Both walkability and access to transit, public services, shopping and other community amenities impact the accessibility of housing and the ability of older adults to successfully age in place.
Addressing the Challenges
Good public policy can help address the housing needs of older adults. Efforts to build, maintain and expand housing options must include both the public and the private sector. The National Low Income Housing Coalition advocates for policies and funding to ensure rental housing is available and affordable, highlighting the need to make rental assistance universally available, to build and preserve affordable and public housing, and to provide robust renter protections.
But subsidized housing only addresses part of the problem. Ninety percent of older adults do not qualify for public assistance with housing. Good public policy also promotes investment in affordable market rate rental and owner-occupied properties. This includes addressing the cost of purchasing and homeownership, as well as existing zoning and community-planning guidelines that limit options for multigenerational and multifamily housing.
‘Less than 1% [of housing] is accessible for wheelchair users.’
Home repair and home-modification programs also are critical to addressing the housing needs of older adults. Household maintenance programs help preserve existing housing stock. Minor home modifications address mobility challenges in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries. These programs preserve the value of homes and enhance safety and livability. Landlords also should be encouraged maintain properties and enhance accessibility of dwelling units. Home repair and home modification programs are cost-effective ways to help people, owners and renters alike, to age in place. Learn more at homemods.org.
Economic security and housing are intrinsically linked. One cannot exist without the other. Strategies to address housing affordability, availability and accessibility promote housing stability and economic security for all and help ensure that all Americans have a place to call home.
Share your stories. . .
Are you aware of creative approaches to making housing more affordable, available and accessible for older adults in your community? We would love to hear from you.
Orion Bell is the president and CEO of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, and a member of ASA’s Economic Security Advisory Council. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Julio Rivalta