About a year ago, Next Avenue described a clever idea from Louis Tenenbaum, of HomesRenewed.org, to create federal tax credits that would help people age in place safely and independently by subsidizing the cost of retrofitting their homes. The idea just got a baby step closer.
Recently, a (barely) bipartisan group of Congressional members introduced The Senior Accessible Housing Act (HR 5254, for the C-SPAN crowd), which would provide a tax credit of up to $30,000 to people over 60 for aging-in-place modifications to their homes, such as widening doorways for wheelchairs and installing ramps, nonslip flooring, handrails and grab bars. (The credit would be nonrefundable, which means it wouldn’t be of use to those who don’t owe federal income taxes.)
Many of these modifications don’t come cheaply. Ramps can run as much as $4,000, installing grab bars and level handles throughout a home can go for $1,500 and you can spend $1,000 or so to widen a doorway.
If you can stay in your home safely, that cuts down on falls, which cost patients and insurance companies $34 billion a year.
— Louis Tenenbaum
First Federal Bill for Homeowners to Age in Place
Tenenbaum, founder of the Aging in Place Institute, believes The Senior Accessible Housing Act is the first federal bill to incentivize older Americans to prepare their homes for aging in place.
He’s over the moon.
“I love it because it exposes the issue of individual housing that needs to be updated,” Tenenbaum told me. “This jumpstarts it to a national stage.”
The bill, supported by the Alliance for Retired Americans, was introduced by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla. and a Senate candidate) and Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine). Additional co-sponsors include Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)
Said Murphy: “With many older Americans living on limited incomes, home improvements to make their residences more accessible are often unaffordable. Making it easier for seniors to make these modifications means that they can stay in their homes longer without being forced to turn to assisted living facilities or nursing homes, which can often cost more.”
Of course, introducing legislation and actually passing it are very different things. And the odds of this (or nearly any) bill becoming law in this highly-charged election year are extremely slim.
But legislation has to start somewhere. And this is one bill that just might appeal to legislators on both sides of the aisle, since 88 percent of people 65 and older say they want to stay in their current residences as long as possible, according to AARP.
The Candidates and Aging in Place
I haven’t seen either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton talk about ways to help people age in place — “It’s not on the national radar” says Tenenbaum. (Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s tax plan would eliminate nearly all tax credits and deductions, not add new ones.)
Bernie Sanders, however, called aging in place a “civil rights issue” at the Leadership Council of Aging Seniors Decide 2016 forum last February. “Clearly we should be doing everything that we can to provide resources to keep people in their own homes,” Sanders said. “Staying in their own homes is what most people would prefer and we should respect that.”
Problem is, although most older Americans want to age in place, their homes won’t let them.
As architect Duo Dickinson said at the HomeAdvisor Insights Forum on aging in place I attended last fall, “The undeniable reality is that the largest demographic bulge in America is processing through to a place where their homes will become a threat.”
Why America’s Homes Are Unfit for Older Americans
As I noted in an earlier Next Avenue post, the Bipartisan Policy Center says five universal design features can help make homes safer for older residents: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets accessible at any height; extra-wide hallways and doors to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs and lever-style door and faucet handles. But only 57 percent of existing homes have more than one of those features, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
For those who ask: “Why should the government help cover the cost of aging-in-place modifications?” my answer — and Tenenbaum’s too — is that these fixes ultimately save money.
“If you can stay in your home safely, that cuts down on falls, which cost patients and insurance companies $34 billion a year,” says Tenenbaum. (The figure is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.)
Also, Tenenbaum adds, when an older person is “rehabbing from an injury or illness or surgery, that’s often in an expensive rehab facility, because you can’t get back into your house.”
Lacking Savings to Live at Home Safely
Backing him up, and demonstrating the need for assistance such as aging-in-place tax credits: The Bipartisan Policy Center’s May 2016 report, Healthy Aging Begins at Home.
The report says: “Over the next 20 years, nearly 40 percent of individuals over the age of 62 are projected to have financial assets of $25,000 or less; 20 percent of those over 62 will have $5,000 or less. For many, this level of savings will be woefully inadequate to cover the expenses of daily living, never mind finance long-term services and supports or the modifications necessary to make living independently at home safe and secure.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center called for states and municipalities to “establish and expand programs to assist low-income seniors with home modifications through property tax credits, grants, or forgivable loans,” such as ones in Allegheny County, Pa.; Georgia; Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Don’t hold your breath, though. Tenenbaum concedes “it’s hard for us to grasp that some kind of spending now equals savings later.”
But that’s why we already have federal tax credits for making our homes more energy efficient. This year, you can claim 10 percent of the cost of certain expenses, up to $500, and 30 percent of the cost for things like solar energy systems and geothermal heat pumps.
If you want to show your support for HR 5254, check out Tenenbaum’s support letter template and write your Congressperson.
After all: if we can help people make their homes more energy efficient, why not help them make their homes more aging efficient?