The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies recently published Housing America’s Older Adults 2018. A highlight of the report is that over half of U.S. households are now headed by someone age 50 or older. This indicates that the living arrangements, financial resources, health, and functional abilities of those households will present serious challenges in the years to come.
Baby boomers will soon begin turning 80 and will increasingly need more accessible and supportive housing than is either currently available or in the pipeline. In addition, many households in their 50s and early 60s are not financially prepared for retirement. A major reason for this is that fewer of these households are homeowners or have built the wealth that prior generations had by the same age.
Other notable trends in the study:
- Many older Americans are burdened by housing costs. Nearly a third of households age 65+ (9.7 million) pay at least 30% of their income for housing, and more than half of these pay over 50%.
- There is a large wealth gap between older homeowners and renters. The median net worth of homeowners age 50-64 was $292,000 in 2016 – almost 60 times that of renters of the same age. The importance of homeownership in wealth building cannot be overstated. It is the single most valuable asset for most seniors and often enables a comfortable retirement.
- While median incomes in the last five rose for older adults, gains were not evenly distributed. From 2011 to 2016, median incomes rose 9.6% for those 65 to 79 and 5.2% for those 80 and older, but people age 50 to 64 saw an increase of only 2.6%.
- There is an historically high gap in homeownership rates between older whites and blacks. 81% of white households age 50+ own their homes compared to 57% of older black households. This 24% gap is the largest since record-keeping began in 1976.
- Growing numbers of older adults live in low-density areas. Between 2000 and 2016, the share of older adults living in low-density census tracts in 95 of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas rose from 24% to 32%, an increase of almost six million adults. Providing services and transportation alternatives is more difficult in locations with more dispersed housing.
- There are not enough accessible units to serve the growing number of those with physical challenges. In 2016, 17% of households age 50+ included someone who had difficulty climbing stairs or walking (including 43% of those age 80+). Yet, only 3.5% of homes had the three key accessibility features: (1) single-floor living; (2) no-step entries; and (3) extra wide halls and doors.
- Many of the most vulnerable live alone. The share of households age 80+ that are single – person is now 57%. However, among renters of the same age, it is 77%. Single person households in need of support or care must rely on non-resident or paid caregivers, yet also have lower incomes than larger households.
What this study makes clear is that there is currently a lack of adequate housing for seniors – especially affordable housing, and, in years to come, the need will grow. Unfortunately, the combination of greater numbers of lower-income older households and limited federal subsidies will only increase the gap between need and supply. This will result in more older adults being forced to cut back on necessities in order to pay for housing.
At this point, there is no indication that there is the political will – or even recognition of the problem – to begin developing a long-term solution. While only a coordinated response from the nation’s public, private, and non-profit entities will begin to address this issue, there is clearly almost no action at the public policy level. Until our elected officials begin to recognize and deal with this growing crisis, the private and non-profit sectors will have to find innovative ways to at least begin to address this growing problem.