Planning for an Aging (Suburban) Society

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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

Grassroots Organizing in Suburbs to Prevent Another Ferguson

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Sarah Jackson

Lorna Francis, a single mom and hairdresser profiled recently in the New York Times, doesn’t vote often. She’s busy raising her daughter and working to afford the rent on her “well groomed suburban cul-de-sac.” And, according to the Times, she’s part of a wave of new working-class black residents in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia, who don’t have the means or time to run for local municipal office, or to get involved in politics.

So although the city is now majority African American, it’s represented by mostly white city council members. Conyers is in Rockdale County, which has undergone a demographic shift since 2000. The county’s share of black residents jumped from 18 to 46 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The police force is still mostly white as well. And although life has been relatively peaceful in Conyers, experts say these representation imbalances can lead to long-term tensions like those we saw erupt in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer after a white police officer shot an unarmed African American teenager. Read More

Behind the “Poor Door” Controversy: Inclusionary Zoning Policies in Cities and Suburbs

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Barbara Ray

Affordable housing is in the news these days as New York City makes headlines for its efforts to build more housing at affordable rents. Whether it’s the “poor door” controversy or the de Blasio administration’s push to mandate developers to include affordable units in every development, a widespread and growing problem is coming into focus.

The “poor door” has set off a wave of criticism because the affordable units are in a separate section from the rest of the luxury high-rise, and low-income residents must enter through a separate door. They also do not have equal access to the building amenities. The reason for the separate entrance, developers argue, is cost.

As the president of the development company told the New York Times, having the affordable apartments incorporated into the condominium tower would have meant “giving away” the most valuable units.

“We wouldn’t be able to do affordable,” he said. “It wouldn’t make any financial sense.” Read More

Food Insecurity Persists Despite Economic Recovery

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Barbara Ray

It’s been more than five years since the Great Recession officially ended. The stock market is rising and the unemployment rate is falling, yet poverty remains stubbornly high and millions of Americans still can’t afford the food they need to feed their families. According to two new reports by the USDA and Feeding America, many families, including a growing number of suburban families, must choose between food and other basic needs like paying rent, transportation, or medical care.

Since 2008, according to the USDA report, the share of households that in the prior month cut back on the size of their portions, skipped meals, ran out of food before payday, or couldn’t afford to feed their families balanced meals has been stuck at approximately 14 percent. In 2003, before the recession began, approximately 11 percent of households were “food insecure,” as the USDA defines it. For most of these families, food insecurity was not a fleeting experience. Most were struggling for at least seven months in the year. Read More

New Census Data Show Few Metro Areas Made Progress Against Poverty in 2013

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According to an analysis of 2013 American Community Survey, four years into an economic recovery, most major metro areas had yet to make progress toward reducing poverty to pre-recession levels. Where gains did occur, they tended to happen in big cities, further accelerating a long-term trend in the suburbanization of U.S. poverty and the challenges that accompany it.

Read the new report>>

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Homepage photo credit: Flickr user @waitscm


Homelessness among Students Is Up Sharply in the Suburbs

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Barbara Ray

In 2010, Penny Scrivner, a retired Greyhound bus driver, had a new job. Every morning, she swung by motels, abandoned cars, and street corners to pick up homeless children for school.

“I’ve picked up kids waiting on street corners,” she told the Oregonian in 2010. “They don’t have an address. I just know they’ll be standing there waiting.”

That morning she pulled over to an apartment building, where a family was living temporarily, to pick up a group of siblings.

“Penny,” one of the girls asks after the door shuts, “can I have a hug?”

“Oh, honey,” Scrivner says, “yes you can.” Read More

Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Metro blog, The Avenue

Elizabeth Kneebone

Nearly a week after the death of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., protests continue in the 21,000-person suburban community on St. Louis’ north side and around the nation.

Amid the social media and news coverage of the community’s response to the police shooting of the unarmed teenager, a picture of Ferguson and its history has emerged.

The New York Times and others have described the deep-seated racial tensions and inequalities that have long plagued the St. Louis region, as well as the dramatic demographic transformation of Ferguson from a largely white suburban enclave (it was 85 percent white as recently as 1980) to a predominantly black community (it was 67 percent black by 2008-2012). Read More

Concentrated Poverty in the News

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Here is a roundup of some of the national and regional coverage Elizabeth’s brief The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty, 2000 to 2008-12 has received since its release two weeks ago.

The Washington Post, Poverty consolidated and spread to the suburbs during the 2000s, report finds

GovBeat’s Niraj Chokshi discusses the growth of poor suburban neighborhoods, their shifting geography and demographics, and the growth in share of suburban poor living in very poor neighborhoods.

Read the article>> Read More

Mayors Take Aim at Inequality, but is That the Right Target?

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Cross-posted on Brookings’ Metro Blog, The Avenue

Alan Berube

Monday, a special U.S. Conference of Mayors task force released a report documenting growing income disparities in U.S. metro areas. The Cities of Opportunity Task Force is chaired by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, two of the most prominent mayors elected last fall on platforms to reduce inequities within their cities.

The analysis and the mayors’ response to it highlight the difficult situation these leaders face.

The statistics in the report, authored by IHS Global Insight, demonstrate that in most places, inequality is increasing. In about two-thirds of metro areas, average incomes grew faster (or shrank more slowly) than median incomes from 2005 to 2012, suggesting that more income has become concentrated among richer households. Read More

Regional Coordination among Governments Can Combat Suburban Poverty

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Barbara Ray

When I was a kid growing up in a small town, the phone in my sister’s house would ring with a different tone to alert my brother-in-law to a fire. When the phone rang, he’d drop everything and run the three blocks to the firehouse and join a dozen or so other volunteers to put out the fire. Our town was too small to warrant a full-time fire department—or many other services for that matter. (We were, however, bigger than the nearby town of Bolan, Iowa, pop. 33—and 16 in 1989 when the entire town joined David Letterman on stage.)

Governance in towns such as Bolan or Glen Echo Park (pop. 160; 37 families) outside St. Louis, a region Elizabeth recently visited, is often a straightforward affair—until, that is, help is needed or disaster strikes.

At a recent meeting in St. Louis County, Elizabeth was discussing the importance of smart governance in combatting growing suburban poverty when a Glen Echo Park elected official raised her hand. Glen Echo Park, she said, has two streets and no retail or businesses, and about one-fourth of the homes are vacant. They needed better housing code enforcement, but where were they to turn? Glen Echo Park is just one of more than 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, which itself is just one county in the St. Louis metro area. Read More