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Senior housing: How a surging older population will impact U.S. homes

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A new Harvard report lays out the wide-reaching impact of a coming upswing in senior homeowners

Senior homeowners Shutterstock

Baby Boomers have spent decades impacting and re-shaping the U.S. economy, and show no signs of slowing down as they enter their golden years. That’s especially true when it comes to the housing market, according to the latest report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035 doesn’t have the catchiest title, but its conclusions and implications are both far-reaching and extremely consequential.

The number of Americans over 80 will double, from 6 million to 12 million, in the next two decades, according to JCHS statistics, and by 2035, one out of three U.S. households will be headed by someone over 65. That’s a population of 79 million. A vast majority of these older Americans will own as opposed to renting, living with others in multi-generational housing, or those living in nursing homes (in fact, nursing home usage has dropped over the past two decades as alternatives for home care proliferate). Your parents or grandparents will be part of a historically large surge in the senior population that will change healthcare and make a huge difference in U.S. housing.

Harvard JCHS Senior Study

The time for homebuilders, planners, and local governments to act is now. The coming upswing in the older American population demands quick action to create more affordable housing, improve accessibility and aging in place strategies, and create a range of housing options. There’s also plenty of profit in store for developers who do it right. Demand for age-restricted housing, such as senior-only developments and apartments, could hit half a million units a year.

Here are some key points and trends from the study, and how they’ll impact housing design and the housing market going forward.

America needs to design for aging on a large scale

An increasingly elderly population demands a rethinking of what constitutes “standard” home features. With more and more aging homeowners, many with disabilities, features such as zero-step entrances into the home, single-floor living, wide halls and doorways that are wheelchair accessible, lever-style handles, and more accessible electrical controls should become the norm. Sadly, we’re far from reaching that level of accessibility. Currently, just 1 percent of the current housing stock offers all these features.

More seniors also means more older Americans living on their own, so it’s vital developers, designers, planners, and policymakers help build a future that supports independent living. The JCHS estimates that by 2035, 17 million older adult households will have at least one person with a mobility disability, and millions will struggle to do housework and everyday activities.

Income challenges will impact an increasing number of seniors

The older generation will be forced to cope with an array of financial challenges straining their resources. The JCHS estimates 17.1 million older adult households will face cost burdens, a problem exacerbated by a number of factors, including a rise in household debt, declines in pension plans, expected shortfalls in Medicare and Social Security, and the recent recession’s erosion of net worth and long-term investments. It’s important to start considering remedies and programs to provide assistance now, as budget constraints on housing can put pressure on other vital budget items such as health care costs.

Multigenerational homes are on the rise

While it’s not as common a living arrangement with native-born older adults, multigenerational households are a much more common living arrangement with Hispanic and immigrant families. The country’s increasing diversity suggests this arrangement will be increasingly more common for older Americans as a whole.

The time to take action is now

The report makes a series of concrete recommendations on how to improve the housing stock and housing market for older Americans: increase the amount of accessible housing, assist older homeowners with cost burdens, increase subsidies for older renters, strengthen ties between health care and housing, expand housing options, and increase public awareness. Some localities and representatives are taking action, but far more policy and planning needs to take place.

For instance, some state and local governments have crafted “visitability ordinances,” which require that new homes be built with more accessibility features, but the requirements vary from place to place. In addition, at the federal level, H. R. 5254, the Senior Accessible Housing Act, proposes a personal tax credit of up to $30,000 for those aged 60 and over who want to modify their homes for safe, comfortable, and independent living. Any preventative action is a good one, but a more unified response would go far towards making sure our older generations can thrive.