A Warning Light New Report Finds America’s Older Population is Growing Rapidly but Suitable Housing is in Short Supply

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The nation is seeing unprecedented growth in its older population but is not prepared to meet the housing needs of this group, which change with aging, according to a new report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation.

The study, Housing America’s Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, provides a wealth of demographic statistics on the housing, financial, mobility, and geographic characteristics of older Americans as well as trends and future projections.

Large and Growing Segment of Population

According to the report, the number of U.S. adults aged 50 and older is expected to grow to 132 million by 2030, an increase of more than 70% since 2000. Major reasons are greater longevity and the large, aging Baby Boom generation. “

Because older age groups will be growing more rapidly than younger age groups,” the report says, “their share of the overall population will also increase rapidly. Today one in seven persons is at least age 65; by 2030, that share will be one in five. At the same time, one in sixteen persons is now at least age 75; by 2040, the share will be one in eight.”

The report says there is a current shortage of housing for older Americans that is affordable, well-located, accommodates their physical needs and preferences, and is coordinated with supports and services. Accessibility refers to such features as no-step entries to housing units, extra-wide doorways, and lever-style door and faucet handles to make living easier for individuals with mobility limitations. Well-located means housing in areas that are conducive to walking and/or have alternative transportation options that are affordable, convenient, reliable, and feel safe to older adults who do not or cannot drive.

According to the study, the gray wave is spreading across larger swaths of the U.S. While only 5% of all counties had a high concentration of older adults in 1990 (i.e., 40% or more of county residents were 50 or older), in 2010 the share was 33%. (Note: An interactive map showing this shift and the percentages for all counties, and the full report itself, may be found at http://tinyurl.com/p8h88eq.)

Additional Findings

The report indicates that America’s older adults are diverse in the housing they occupy, their incomes and level of mobility, but that their needs shift as they get older due to changes in their financial, physical, health, and family situations.

Findings include that:

  • Most older adults are homeowners, not renters. In 2013, the homeowner- ship rate was more than 70% for those in their early 50s, rising to over 82% for those in their early 70s. Nonetheless, 73% of owners 50-64 still had mort- gage payments in 2010, compared to 61% in 1992, and the average amount of consumer debt among older Americans has risen. • The vast majority of older Americans live inde- pendently rather than in institutional care facilities. Even among those 80 or older, more than 75% live in their own home.
  • The number of renter households 60 and over is likely to increase by about 20% by 2020 and by another 25% during 2020-2030.
  • The majority of older households are individuals or couples without children, with the former segment growing rapidly. Single persons account for about one-quarter of households in their 50s, one-third in their 60s, two-fifths in their 70s, and three-fifths among those 80 and over. Between 2015 and 2035, the number of people over 75 living alone will nearly double.
  • Nearly half of households 50 and over live in the suburbs or exurbs of metropolitan areas, while the remaining half are evenly divided between core cities and rural communities. Older adults in the Northeast are more concentrated in suburban areas; in the Midwest and South, in non-metropolitan areas; and in the West, in central cities.
  • In 2010, homeowners 50 and older had a median net wealth 44 times that of older renters, or $267,100 ($117,000 excluding home equity) compared to $6,100.
  • The number of low-income households 65 and over is likely to grow rapidly. Assuming no change from the current income distribution pattern for this segment, 6.5 million older households will have incomes below $15,000 in 2024, an increase of 1.8 million (37%) in a single decade. The growth in those making $15,000-$29,999 will add another 2.9 million households.
  • Residences of older Americans often lack extensive physical features or modifications to facilitate “aging in place,” even though about 25% of adults aged 50 or over have difficulties with hearing, vision, cognition or mobility – a share likely to grow to 68% by age 85. The most common age-related disability is reduced mobility.
  • Americans are working longer. In 2013, 31% of households 65-69 were still employed, up from 22% in 1993. The labor rate also rose for those 70-74 and 80 and above.

Low-Income Renters Especially Vulnerable

The study found that housing affordability is a serious issue for many older adults, and particularly for low-income renters.

A third of adults 50 and older (20 million households) – including 37% of those 80 and above –have moderate cost burdens, spending more than 30% of their income for housing. Among those 65 and older, the share is about 50% for both renters and homeowners who still have mortgages. Some 30% of renters and 23% of owners with mortgages have severe cost burdens, paying over 50% of their income for housing.

Housing cost burdens are common among low-income older households: 77% for those earning less than $15,000 a year and 54% for those making $15,000 to $29,999.

Furthermore, the incidence of housing cost burdens among low-income older renters rises with age, from nearly 50% of those 50–64 to about 60% for those 80 or older. According to the report, housing cost-burdened older households compensate by cutting back on their expenditures for food, transportation, and health care.

Contributing to the affordability problem for older low-income renters, states the report, is the shortfall in the availability of federal rent subsidies. In 2011, only 1.4 million (36%) of the 3.9 million renter households 62 or older who were eligible for rental assistance because of very low incomes (50% or less of the area median income) actually received it. If the current income distribution pattern continues, the number should swell by another 1.3 million by 2020 and by an additional 1.3 million between 2020 and 2030.

Changes Needed

According to the study, a variety of policy changes and actions by governments at all levels are needed to address the shortage of affordable and accessible housing for older Americans. It recommends steps to making housing more affordable and accessible, promoting alternatives to automobile travel, better coordination of housing and supportive services, improving residential care options, and engaging older adults in the community.

The report, though, suggests that the current challenges also create opportunities.

“For the private sector, the growth of the older adult population provides vast opportunities to innovate in the areas of housing and supportive care. Indeed, substantial business opportunities exist in helping older adults modify their homes to suit evolving needs, delivering services at home, and developing new models of housing with services that promote independence and integrate residents with the larger community.”