Planning for an Aging (Suburban) Society

  • 1
  • November 10, 2014

aging in suburbs - body

Barbara Ray

There’s another housing crisis on the horizon—but this one isn’t derivative driven. Instead, it’s driven by aging. By 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older—and their homes and communities, particularly suburban communities, aren’t ready for them.

Most older Americans prefer to stay put in the home they’ve been in for years. And, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report on “aging in place,” most households with at least one resident over the age of 65 are in the suburbs. As Brookings Institution demographer William Frey wrote in 2011, “the suburbs are now outpacing cities in having greater growth and concentration of populations age 45 and above.”

Yet several factors make aging in place in the suburbs difficult.

The suburban housing stock is aging along with the population, a fact that is hardly appealing to new, younger buyers who want a different lifestyle than one in the cul-de-sac. Older Americans, even if they wanted to downsize, may be stuck in a home that is not conducive to safe aging: too many stairs, cupboards that are too high, dishwashers that are too low, and bathrooms that are a fall waiting to happen. As one researcher put it at a convening on housing in an aging society, held at the Stanford Center on Longevity, the country has a lot of “‘Peter Pan’ housing: designed for those who are never going to grow up and certainly never going to grow old.”

On top of that, the car-centric, cul-de-sac lifestyle can quickly become isolating for seniors who can no longer drive in communities that lack public transit options and walkability.

Increasingly, affordability will become an issue as well, as baby boomers enter retirement still holding a mortgage and as the gap between income and housing costs grows wider. Longer lives will only exacerbate the need for more savings and better income security. Projections are that 6.5 million of those older than age 65 will have incomes less than $15,000 annually by 2024, a 37 percent increase in their numbers in ten years.

We need to shrink the footprint of where older Americans will live, from sprawled suburbs to denser living, to make delivering services more efficient and cost-effective—and to make living more enjoyable for the elderly.

But how do we do this? As Kriston Capps wrote in CityLab, “It’s much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them” than it is to simply retrofit existing homes.

Hard, but not impossible. A former policy director at AARP told me that we can begin by shifting our mindset away from the dream of four acres and a four-bedroom home. Reducing the mortgage deduction in federal taxes is a start, he said, because current policy encourages homeowners—the majority of who own single-family homes—to buy larger. (Others agree.) More multigenerational households, microapartments, and other innovations would help, as would housing that is integrally tied to social services, health care, and, where possible, transit. Boulder, Colorado, is leading the charge locally on the integrated service delivery front. And, some developers have begun converting defunct suburban shopping malls into multiuse developments, a good model for seniors because shops, services, and transit can all be close by—shrinking the footprint, in other words.

Building more affordable housing in the suburbs will be increasingly necessary as well. We’re facing an acute shortage of affordable rental housing for older Americans. Three in 10 seniors are renters, and seniors make up 46 percent of Section 8 voucher holders. For every Section 202 unit that becomes available, 10 seniors are on the waiting list.

The good news is that incentives could be created to build more affordably and smartly. Terri Ludwig, president and CEO of the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, told the audience at a September 2014 housing conference that affordable housing developers are becoming adept at blending funding streams from Medicare, Medicaid and HUD to develop “healthy” housing. And, Ludwig has seen increased investment in Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects by private health care companies, who see the projects both as financial investments and investment in critical infrastructure to expand their services to patients, where they live.

Some suburbs are experimenting with different zoning laws as well. Suburbs often have zoning laws in place that limit density when building or prohibit the types of multifamily dwellings that could allow family members to share housing while retaining their privacy. Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, approved a “density bonus” for developers who build affordable housing in wealthier parts of the city. The bonus allows builders to construct more units than current zoning laws allow. However, to date, no developers have taken the city up on the option.

Much more work is needed—and fast. “We have a big problem because the scale of the problem is big,” former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros told the housing conference. Ten thousand baby boomers enter retirement each day. In only 16 years, in 2030, 20 million Americans will be older than 85.

The facts are clear, said Cisneros. “We are aging. We are not ready. We are not preparing well enough. We will reap the sad consequences, and we will see many people suffer.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “We still have time. We must think anew, plan comprehensively, and act with determination.”

Photo credit: Flickr user Ethan Prater

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