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How Will We House an Aging Population?

By Harry S. Margolis

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies has published a report on the challenges of housing our aging population over the next two decades. harvard_jchs_housing_growing_population_cover[1]

The Coming Crisis

Here are some of its findings:

  • The over-65 population will increase from 48 million today to 79 million in 2035.
  • The over-80 population will double from 12 to 24 million.
  • By 2035, one in five Americans will be 65 or over, up from one in seven today.
  • The Joint Center projects that by 2035, 17 million older households will include someone with a mobility disability, 12 million needing with a self-care disability and 27 million with a household activity disability.
  • Only 1 percent of housing units in the United States offer complete universal design, including:
    • Zero-step entrances
    • Single-floor living
    • Wide halls and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs
    • Electrical switches reachable from a wheelchair
    • Lever-style faucets and doors
  • Less than 3.5 percent of housing stock have three of these features.
  • 39% of older homeowners have less than $50,000 in non-house assets, making it difficult for them to afford modifications to make their homes accessible.
  • 70 percent of older adults are likely to need some form of long-term care during their lives.
  • The median older homeowner has just over $100,000 in non-home assets, which would be depleted after two years of home or assisted living care.
  • More than 9 million older homeowners have less than $50,000 and the median older renter has only $6,150 in assets.

Recommendations for Action

The joint center recommends taking the following steps to alleviate the current older housing crisis that will only deteriorate with time:

  • Provide tax credits and other financial incentives to help homeowners and landlords to pay for home modifications.
  • Require new housing to include accessibility features.
  • Property tax relief for low-income older households.
  • Offer grants and tax incentives for the installation of more efficient heating and cooling systems, solar panels and weatherization in order to reduce housing costs.
  • Expand rental assistance to low-income senior renters.
  • Strengthen the ties between health care and housing so that seniors stay healthy in their homes.
  • Increase public awareness so that older adults plan ahead, making their homes accessible earlier, perhaps when doing other home improvements, and engage their public officials in making necessary investments and policy changes.

Take Aways

The main problem facing today’s and tomorrow’s seniors in terms of their housing and care is the growing financial inequity in the United States. The 76 million Baby Boomers are estimated to hold $30 trillion in assets. But 68 percent of this huge amount is owned by the most affluent 10 percent with another 12 percent owned by those in the 80 to 90 percent decile.

This leaves just 20 percent of the Baby Boomer wealth to be split among 60 million Baby Boomers. Many of them won’t have enough money to make ends meet, much less pay for home modifications or home care. The Joint Center recommendations will help, but mostly on the margins. To fill the gap, we will need to plan to spend more money, not just offer tax incentives.

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