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As record number of boomers hit retirement age, inequality rampant in senior housing

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Harvard’s annual state of senior housing report underscores deep challenges around inequality in an aging nation

An older women site alone at a table in a colorful, sunlit room. Brightly patterned curtains hang above the windows.
Senior housing will be a critical issue as the American populations ages, according to a new report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Housing in America is at an inflection point. While affordability and homeownership have become critical issues holding back the nation’s economy, the housing problems of the oldest Americans may be the most acute issue receiving the least attention. According to the latest senior housing study from The Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies (JCHS), the challenges facing seniors and older baby boomers have become more critical.

“The time for more comprehensive, innovative policies—in the design, financing, construction, and regulation of housing, in urban planning and design, and in the provision of community services—is now,” the report, Housing America’s Older Adults 2019, concludes. “The quality of life and well-being of a third of U.S. households depend on it.”

The same issues impacting the housing market at large, including rising inequality, a shortage of affordable options, and a racial wealth gap, are also at play for older Americans. But a rising awareness that the soon-to-be retired face especially difficult economic challenges makes the issue of senior housing even more pressing.

For instance, per Harvard stats, of those households aged 50-64 right now, the median income for the top 10 percent rose twice as fast between 2012 and 2017, by a total of 15 percent, than it did for the bottom 10 percent, who saw just an 8 percent increase. In 2017, those higher earners had an average median income of $204,000, a new record, while the 10 percent with the lowest incomes hit a median income of $14,400, even lower than it was in 2000. These are the Americans planning for retirement and a future of fixed incomes and increased medical costs.

Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Inequality by income, and increasingly by age

The inequality divide in American society means radically different futures for older Americans at different income levels. As the Harvard report notes, for many of those in the 50-64 age group, many of whom still bear financial wounds from the Great Recession, the twin challenges of lower incomes and cost-burdened housing (defined as paying more than a third of your income for housing) are “ensuring financial and housing security in retirement will be a struggle.”

Harvard researchers at the Joint Center for Housing Studies even found a sharp divide in income by age. Between 2000 and 2017, for instance, the median income for the nation’s 65-79 year-olds jumped 28 percent, hitting a 20-year high of $46,500. At the same time, the real median income for the 50-64 year-old demographic in that same period stalled at $71,400, the same place it was in 2000. The older baby boomers, already on fixed incomes, many of whom have paid off their mortgages, have seen their fortunes improve, while a younger age group looking to put money away for later-in-life expenses (and perhaps helping out their own financially strapped kids) have seen no appreciable gain in income.

A vision of an older America in 2038

The leading edge of baby boomers turns 73 this year, and this so-called “silver tsunami” of older Americans is just beginning to crest. But to get a true sense of the scope of the senior housing challenge, examine the picture the report’s authors paint of the country’s demographics in 2038.

The number of households aged 70-79 will hit 10.7 million by 2038. That may be a staggering number, but consider that the number of 80-and-over households is projected to reach 17.5 million, accounting for 12 percent of households in the U.S. This older demographic will become more diverse as it ages, with Hispanics accounting for 12 percent of the 65-and-up population by 2038, when it was just 7 percent in 2018.

But perhaps most alarming aspect of this demographic shift is that 57 percent of households over 80 are expected to live alone. That adds up to more than 10 million single-person households over 80 years of age in 2038.

Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Living alone brings a whole host of additional complexities for older people, including needs for health care, social interaction, and social services. And of the 24 million homeowners today over the age of 65, four out of five live in detached, single-family homes, the majority of which are at least 40 years old. Nearly a third of that group of homeowners lives in low-density areas, a figure that jumped 61 percent from 2000 to 2017.

The eldest among us will increasingly be financially stressed, living alone in homes that might need significant maintenance, and living apart from others. Many experts believe it’s critical that we see the intertwined nature of housing design, support services, and urban planning, and how all these things can be utilized to help.

How can we design a better future for aging Americans?

Advocates for older Americans have consistently called for an urbanism for older age. Density and walkability are key for older Americans’ independence and safety. Another proven tactic is providing additional multigenerational living options. The number of 65-or-older Americans living together with different generations of their family has been on the rise; between 2007 and 2017, that number grew from 6 to 9.8 million. This kind of living arrangement has been shown to have a great impact on mental, physical, and social health.

The Harvard report also highlights the need to support aging in place. Just 3.5 percent of all U.S. homes have features that allow for aging in place, such as grab-bars or handrails in the bathroom, extra-wide hallways and doors, and a bedroom on the entry level. Many cities and states have experimented with ways to help support these types of renovations and conversions.

As the report notes, many states cover the costs of certain home modifications for low- income households under Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services waivers, and some local jurisdictions offer grants and tax credits for this purpose. Expanding these options to middle-income older adults, who often lack resources, can make a huge difference.

Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

The larger issue of systemic inequality

While making efforts to design more age-friendly communities can help, systemic issues with American retirement are creating a growing gulf between the haves and have-nots. The system is set up to favor those already ahead, and the racial wealth gap for seniors has only gotten worse (the black-white homeownership gap among households age 65 hit 19.4 percent in 2018, a 30-year high).

As the report notes, “The stock market boom has also helped to fuel the divergence between the highest and lowest income groups, driving up the incomes of higher earners who are more likely to invest in stocks. And given that Social Security benefits are based on past earnings, income disparities at older ages are to some extent a continuation of disparities that existed earlier in life.”

Those with homes, especially those who have paid them off, see a huge advantage going into retirement. Of Americans 65 and up, those who have paid off their mortgages had just $458 in monthly housing costs in 2017, compared to the $830 paid by renters and the $1,310 paid by those who still had mortgages. Homeowners in general can also fall back on their homes, assets that provide equity and wealth, as opposed to relying strictly on Social Security.

For many older, lower-income renters, Social Security is truly a lifeline. While nearly 90 percent of adults 65 and older collect Social Security, half of recipients depend on the entitlement for half their income.

These stats just reinforce the inequality in aging the nation is about to face. In 2016, the median 65-plus homeowner had average net wealth of $319,200. A renter at the same age had net wealth of just $6,700. For those 50-64, it’s not any better: $292,000 for homeowners, and $5,000 for renters. Why is this so important? As the report underscores, the Genworth Cost of Care Study 2018 found that the national median cost of just 14 hours of a home health aide per week would total $16,000 for the year.