Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 26, 2017

Housing Tomorrow’s Seniors

By David Reiss

photo by Government of Alberta

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies has issued a report, Projections & Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035. The report opens,

Over the next twenty years, the population aged 65 and over is expected to grow from 48 million to 79 million. Meanwhile, the number of households headed by someone in that age group will increase by 66 percent to almost 50 million—with the result that by 2035, an astounding one out of three American households will be headed by someone aged 65 or older.

Older adults’ homes and living situations are keys to their quality of life and capacity to live independently. The expansion of the older population will increase the need for affordable, accessible housing that is well-connected to services well beyond what current supply can meet. In addition, the home is an increasingly important setting for the delivery of long-term care, a trend likely to grow over the next two decades as millions more seek to remain in their current dwellings while coping with disabilities and health challenges.

Over the next two decades, many older households will have the financial means to secure housing and supportive services suited to their needs as they age. The focus for these households should be on making informed choices about potential living situations and locations, investments in home modifications, and care—before physical or financial needs become pressing.

Yet over the same period, millions of low-income older households will struggle to pay for appropriate housing and necessary supportive services. For these households, basic housing costs will drain resources needed to pay for home modifications or in-home services, and may force reductions in spending on critical needs like food and healthcare.

The nation is now at the beginning of a twenty-plus-year surge in the older population, and is thus at a critical point for putting in place the affordable housing options, accessibility features, and in-home care services that will be needed over the next two decades. Transportation and technologies to ensure people can remain engaged in their communities and access supportive services are also needed. While many older adults indicate that they prefer to age in their current residences, a wider array of housing types can offer safer, more affordable, and lower-maintenance homes within existing communities, improving housing situations without uprooting older adults from the places they have called home for years or even decades. (4-5)

The report obviously raises important points about the need to plan for the aging of the American population. I am not hopeful, however, that the federal government will be offering leadership on these issues. It will be up to the states to identify policies that the can implement. Some proposals that are worth a look include

  • providing incentives to include accessibility (or at least accessibility-ready) features in new construction;
  • strengthening the ties between health care and housing; and
  • increasing public awareness of the benefits of planning for the challenges of aging before they actually arrive.
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