Left Out in the Cold
The number of people aged 80 and over is growing faster than the housing they need and can afford, raising concern they’ll end up on the street
The number of Americans aged 65 and older jumped by more than 30% in the last decade, and will only continue to climb. As it does, more older adults are likely to struggle to find affordable, accessible housing as they age, according to a new report.
Many will face the difficult choice of paying for housing or health care, while some older Americans will end up homeless. People over 80 years old — the fastest growing segment in the coming decade and one with urgent needs for accessible housing and services and supports at home — may be the most impacted, according to Housing America's Older Adults 2023, a new report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
"The demand for suitable, affordable, accessible housing that's well-connected to services is about to skyrocket," says Jennifer Molinsky, Project Director of the Housing an Aging Society Program at the Center. "We're really on the cusp of a lot of change."
A Ballooning Population
At the same time, the U.S., for its part, lags behind other advanced economies in preparing for this unprecedented population surge, the report notes. But there are many opportunities for public, private and nonprofit organizations to address the mismatch between a rapidly aging population and insufficient supply of affordable, accessible housing. Help could take the form of zoning changes to increase housing options and more government rent assistance, among other efforts, Molinsky says.
"The demand for suitable, affordable, accessible housing that's well-connected to services is about to skyrocket."
From 2012 to 2022, the number of Americans aged 65 and over climbed from 43 million to 58 million, according to the report. That number will continue to increase as the first baby boomers turn 80 within the current decade.
Part of the reason older adults struggle to stay in the home of their choice or to find new housing is because of their fixed or declining incomes. In 2021, an all-time high of around 11.2 million older adults were cost burdened, meaning they spent more than 30% of their income on housing. This was especially true for renters, homeowners with mortgages and householders age 80 and over.
Choose Housing or Health?
"We know that people who are unaffordably housed might forgo prescriptions, spend less on food or forgo making modifications to their home that could help them live more safely," Molinsky says.
"We know that people who are unaffordably housed might forgo prescriptions."
More older adults have mortgage debt, too. Between 1989 and 2022, the share of homeowners aged 65 to 79 with a mortgage rose from 24% to 41% and the median mortgage debt more than quintupled, from $21,000 to $110,000. More than 30% of homeowners aged 80 and over carry mortgages, up from just 3% three decades ago. Renters, for their part, can be vulnerable to rising housing prices in ways owners are not.
Meanwhile, accessible housing for older adults in the U.S. is in short supply. Fewer than 4% of U.S. homes offered the three key features of accessible housing — single-floor living, no-step entries and wide hallways and doorways — according to data from the latest American Housing Survey.
Older adults are also balancing high health care costs with their housing needs. The majority of older adults will need long-term care services, which cost, on average, over $100 per day nationwide. Older adults with low incomes are the most likely to need these services but the least likely to be able to afford them.
When these care services are added to housing costs, only 14% of single people aged 75 and over can afford a daily visit from a paid caregiver, according to the new report, while just 13% can afford to move to an assisted living center.
"Having less (home) equity limits your options."
The burden is especially steep for renters and homeowners of color who may not have enough home equity to tap into to pay for care or services. Older renters have only 2% of the net wealth of older homeowners. Older Black homeowners have the lowest housing equity at $123,000 versus $251,000 for older white homeowners, $200,000 for older Hispanic owners, and $270,000 for older owners who are Asian, multiracial, or another race.
"Having less equity limits your options," says Molinsky.
Climate change is playing a part, too. With increased floods and fires across the U.S., property damage is a rising concern and it contributes to costs. In Florida alone (home to 8.3% of the nation's older population), severe storms caused $228 billion in property damage from February 2020 through April 2023.
More Older Adults Are Homeless
With so many challenges, there's a real risk of homelessness for older adults. In fact, older adults are one of the fastest-growing groups experiencing homelessness, says Jennifer Kye, a senior attorney at the nonprofit Justice in Aging.
"This act would be a game changer because we know these programs work."
Among other reforms, the group is advocating for Congress to pass the bipartisan Eviction Crisis Act, which would establish a permanent emergency rental assistance program similar to the help that was temporarily available during the pandemic.
"These were lifelines for older adults who couldn't pay their rent," Kye says. "This act would be a game changer because we know these programs work. With homelessness, prevention is really key. Once older adults lose their housing, they generally face more challenges than younger people in trying to regain it."
Planning for Older Age
A big part of the solution is more funding — from the government and other groups — to subsidize housing and help pay for accessibility upgrades to properties, Molinsky says.
Home modifications like no-step entries and walk-in showers could go a long way toward helping older adults age at home, a scenario a majority of people prefer. "There's a lot to be said for planning ahead," she says.
For example, people in the midst of a home improvement project could consider add-ons that might help them in older age so that accommodations are in place when they need them. If you're opening up a bathroom wall, says Molinsky, put in blockers, or pieces of wood inside the wall, so you can eventually add grab bars.
"If you want to stay in your home community, think about what kinds of support, services and modifications you might need in the future to make it a more comfortable experience," she says.
Renters: Know Your Rights
People living in rental properties should know their rights around landlords providing reasonable accommodations to make their dwelling accessible, says Kye.
"It's really important to ensure more housing providers are complying with civil rights laws."
For example, some older adults who need a live-in aide have found that building management won't let a caregiver live with a tenant unless the aide is on the lease.
"It's really important to ensure more housing providers are complying with civil rights laws and that they provide older adults with disabilities with the reasonable accommodations they need," Kye says.
Older adults who need help getting reasonable accommodations and filing a complaint may find help from sources that offer legal services to low-income people and those living in poverty: local Legal Services groups; fair housing organizations, legal aid offices, or disability rights groups to see if they qualify for their free services, says Kye.
Potential Solutions to the Shortage
Zoning reforms could help with the housing shortage, too, by encouraging a wider variety of living options in communities for older adults. "There's an opportunity for people to advocate for more local housing options," says Molinsky.
"We have to support people. The need is only growing, as is the urgency to act."
More safe and affordable mortgage products would be welcome as well, she says. Borrowing could help older adults access cash for basic needs or care as they stay in their communities. This could make a big impact in rural and other low-density area where housing choices are more limited.
Often, people don't want to tap into their home equity because they think it's for an emergency or they want to pass on wealth to their children. "But what constitutes an emergency?" says Molinsky. "If you could use your home equity to make your life better — to buy hearing aids, for example — maybe that's a good investment."
Molinsky is optimistic about solutions. The time for action, however, is now. "The fact that we have a growing older population means we have improved longevity, and this is a good thing," she says. "But we have to support people. The need is only growing, as is the urgency to act."