By Brian Goslow
The United States is unprepared to meet the housing needs of its aging population, according to a new study. Adding to the problem, a third of Americans 50 and older — almost 20 million households — spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing that may or may not fit their needs as they age.
The study, “Housing America’s Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of an Older Population,” released by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University and AARP Foundation, found that “Millions of older adults who develop disabilities live in homes that lack accessibility features such as a no-step entry, single-floor living, extra-wide doorways and halls, accessible electrical controls and switches, and lever-style door and faucet handles.”
The need to adapt homes for the older years comes at a time high housing costs are already causing many Americans to cut back on necessary food or medications. “As the single largest item in most household budgets, housing costs directly affect day-to-day financial security as well as the ability to accrue wealth to draw upon later in life,” the study noted.
“That means that as your housing costs rise, the more likely you’re facing decisions such as do I pay for medication or do I pay for my heating bill?” said Vivian Vasallo, director of AARP Foundation’s Housing Impact Area. “Do I have to cut back on certain things, like food, for example, and then have food insecurity because I have to pay rent or mortgage this month? Because of this housing cost burden, it’s having an impact on other parts of people’s lives as far as health care and food insecurity and nutritional needs,” said Vasallo.
Unlike the majority of reports on older adults that usually utilize a retirement age starting point, the new study started at age 50, providing a longer-term view of the housing situation. “I’m so glad we didn’t just start at the typical retirement age because with the 50 to 64 generation we found so many interesting things,” said Jennifer Molinsky, a research associate for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University who worked on the study.
“We found that they’re going into retirement with more mortgage debt, with higher debt,” Molinsky said. The home ownership rate among the 50 to 64 age group was down 5 percentage points because of the recession, which will leave less of that population with that financial resource to fall back on. “That’s going to be tough to make up before retirement,” Molinksy said. “That generation also has fewer children who might serve as caregivers in the future.”
Molinksy said her biggest concern, in terms of housing, is its affordability — and accessibility to it in future years. “Just the sheer numbers of low income, older adults will grow and yet we don’t have housing,” she said. “Right now, two-thirds of the people that are eligible for federal assistance can’t get it because we don’t have that now. What’s going to happen when we have so many more low-income renters who are older and we have expiring (federal subsidy) contracts on some of these places? So we’re not only looking at constraints on the supply of housing, but we’re also looking at much greater demand.”
Similarly, the study found that the existing housing stock is unprepared to meet the escalating need for affordability, accessibility, social connectivity and supportive services.
In Massachusetts, and throughout the northeast, pre-1940 housing stock is much less likely to be accessible with only a quarter of residences having a no-step entry; 64 percent are one floor living quarters. In those homes built in 2000 onwards, more than half the living quarters have no-step entry and 74 percent are single floor living. “Definitely, age (of the housing stock) is a concern,” Molinsky said, when it comes to housing in Massachusetts.
“Our housing tends to be less accessible than other areas of the country because we have an older housing stock, with a lot of multi-storied homes with a lot of stairs, and in many places, a hilly geography,” Molinsky said. These older homes also have narrow doors and halls.
In its 2010 “Housing Policy Solutions to Support Aging in Place” study, the AARP Public Policy Institute reported that 89 percent of people 50 and older want to age-in-place. In many instances, they’ll have to be creative to make that occur.
“If they really have a strong desire, for example, to stay in that home but maybe it’s too big and they really don’t need all this space or they’re income constrained, there’s a model called house-sharing,” Vasallo said.
Often referred to as “The Golden Girls Model,” a person with a home or apartment takes in roommates — which offers a way to supplement income and to be less socially isolated. “After living alone, now you have people living with you,” Vasallo said. “There can be a sharing of tasks — for example, if you can no longer drive but you want to stay in your home and that’s a big barrier, you can have a roommate that has a car that can help take you places.”
Another option is for a person to live on the first floor of his or her house and convert the second floor into a rental unit. Accessory dwelling units, often referred to as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law” suites, are also becoming a working option, Vasallo said.
“Depending on the local jurisdiction and zoning issues, people are putting these smaller units on their land and either they’re moving into them or they’re having caregivers or other family members move into them,” Vasallo said. “We’re seeing some different uses of land and properties and I think we’re going to see that evolve more and more.”
The AARP Foundation is expanding its Housing Solutions Center Program, which offers assistance and advice for individuals who want to learn more about housing options “That’s the first step that we’re taking at the foundation to help address this need but also for people to assess what it is they need versus what they have and also the community that they live in,” Vasallo said.
She suggested that people talk with trusted partners in their communities — realtors and lenders, architects and designers and their office on aging — to map out the plan that’s best for them.
“It’s important to get people recognizing that in their 50s and 60s, they need to be asking themselves questions around what their housing will look like in 10 or 20 years from now and beginning to plan for those changes today and not wait until later,” Vasallo said.
“It’s wise to plan ahead, for sure, to think about needs before they become acute,” Molinsky said. “Think about what your accessibility needs might be where your house is right now.” She noted that there are private consultants who will come to your home and help you figure out how to make it aging-in-place friendly. “There is a business in that that is growing, for sure, about people advising you and even doing the changes for you.”
Similarly, as does happen with the older population, steps have to be taken to watch for contractor fraud, which could become an issue as more people seek to re-fit their homes. “That’s not to cast aversions on any of these business that are doing this work, because it’s really important and really good,” Molinsky said.
On a community scale, Molinsky noted The Villages, based on the original Beacon Hill model, and the Jewish Federations of North America’s NORC Aging in Place Initiative program in New York City, help their residents and members — telling them “who is a good recommended contractor, that kind of thing,” she said.
The report offered one example of pro-active action called Rebuilding Together, a national non-profit organization that uses volunteers to retrofit the homes of older adults and people with disabilities. It estimates it serves from 4,000 to 10,000 households annually. “Yet, the need is really in the millions,” Vasallo noted, adding that there is a critical need more programs and services that would allow individuals to age in place. “So that’s something we’re looking at, is what are some models that can be scaled that will help people retrofit their homes so they can stay in them.”
The Massachusetts Home Modification Loan Program is an example of a successful model that provides up to $30,000 to help with accessibility modifications for households that have people with disabilities or households with older members.
While the “Housing America’s Older Adults” study shows the numbers, and predictions for housing shortcomings in the years ahead, Molinsky said there isn’t a widespread push for new housing. She said there is a need to get the information out there. “A lot of these policies have to start at the state, federal and local levels — there’s just a lot to be done and getting folks involved is always a big thing,” she said.
Vasallo said that communities — each which will have its own unique needs — should be working in partnership with residents to figure out solutions to the housing issue. “The demographics are clear that as a country and as individuals we need to ask ourselves, ‘what do we do now in order to prevent this oncoming crisis in the future,’ ” she said. “For all of the people who are turning 65 now, in 10 years, they’re going to be 75-80, so it’s a window of time that we have to act.”
For more information: The AARP Housing Solutions Center Program,www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/housing/; The Massachusetts Home Modification Loan Program, www.mass.gov/eohhs/consumer/disability-services/housing-disability/home-mod-loan/; Housing America’s Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of an Older Population study,www.jchs.harvard.edu/research/housing_americas_older_adults.