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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Housing for America’s Older Adults: Four Problems We Must Address

This is a critical moment in which to consider investments in the housing needs of the nation’s older adults. While the number of people 65 and over has increased dramatically since the first baby boomers reached that age a decade ago, in just three years the leading edge of that cohort turns 80. By 2035, the Census Bureau projects that the population 80 and over will grow to nearly 24 million people, fully doubling from 2016. Many of these older adults will live alone and on limited incomes, and many will have mobility and other health challenges.

As I testified in a Senate hearing earlier this year, demand for affordable, accessible housing, in-home services, and neighborhood supports and amenities is set to soar—yet right now, we fall well short of meeting even today’s needs. Without concerted action, we are on track for even graver deficiencies that may diminish older people’s health and ability to remain in their communities; increase the cost of public programs; and exacerbate deep and longstanding inequalities. I will highlight four specific challenges in my remarks.

First, there is enormous unmet need for affordable rental housing for older adults. Over 10 million households headed by someone 65 and over are cost burdened (paying more than a third of their income on housing); half of these pay more than 50 percent. Nearly three-quarters of renters earning under $15,000 per year are cost burdened. To compensate, households often cut back on food and medical care, which can be detrimental for those with chronic health conditions. Renters, often on fixed incomes, are particularly at risk of rising housing costs, and have a much smaller personal safety net: in 2019, the median older renter had a net wealth under $6,000.

At last measure, over 2.2 million older, very low-income renter households had “worst case housing needs,” defined as having severe cost burdens, living in severely inadequate housing, or both. Only 36 percent of income-eligible older adults receive federal housing assistance, and trends point to greater demand for support in the coming years: the number of income-eligible households will increase with population growth and widening income disparities, and rentership rates are rising, in part because people now nearing retirement were particularly hard hit by the foreclosure crisis. Expanding rental assistance can provide needed stability to these households—and also help address a growing homelessness crisis among older adults.

Affordability challenges are disproportionately felt by older people of color. Longstanding disparities in access to well-paying jobs and homeownership opportunities have resulted in steep gaps in homeownership with white households and greater financial insecurity, particularly for older Black and Hispanic households.

Second, very little of the nation’s housing stock offers even the most basic of accessibility features. Our analysis shows that less than 4 percent of homes offer a no-step entry, single-floor living, and wide enough doors and hallways to accommodate a wheelchair. Older people are also most likely to report difficulties entering, navigating, and using different parts of their homes. Support is needed for renters and property owners, as well as older homeowners, to make modifications and maintain housing in safe condition.

Third, the need for assistance and services that support older adults with activities of daily living and household tasks is escalating. Service-enriched affordable housing has been shown to support independence—and reduce healthcare costs—but need outstrips supply. Demand will grow for supports and services delivered to middle-income older adults who typically cannot afford assisted living settings.

Fourth, our research shows that many older adults live in places that lack livability features, such as neighborhood services, transportation alternatives, safe streets, and opportunities for engagement. These all contribute to wellbeing, and can even combat isolation and loneliness, both serious health issues in their own right.

Housing options are an important part of livability, particularly for those seeking to remain in their communities when their current home no longer fits their needs. Options can be few in high-cost locations and in suburban and rural communities dominated by single-family homes, in part due to zoning barriers. And as the pandemic has highlighted, expanding access to broadband in older adults’ homes is critical, especially for low-income households and rural locations.

We can address these challenges with comprehensive and coordinated policies to build, preserve, and retrofit affordable housing; assist owners and landlords with accessibility modifications; and connect housing with services and transportation. We can ensure that the oldest people in our nation have housing that provides a sound foundation for a good quality of life. But the time to act is now—the need is already great and will only become more so.