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The Next Housing Crisis: Aging Americans' Homes

A new study says they're too costly, inaccessible and in the wrong places

By Richard Eisenberg and SCAN Foundation

Editor's note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.

There’s another potential housing crisis coming and this one won’t be a collapse in home values.

The nation is facing a lack of affordable, physically-accessible and well-located homes for America’s aging population — especially those with low incomes, according to a new, gloomy study released today by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies & AARP Foundation.

“You’ve got a scenario with the largest generation we’ve ever had moving into their senior years combined with the fact that longevity is increasing,” says Jonathan Smoke, Chief Economist at, the site of the National Association of Realtors. “And we’re fairly ill prepared to address the housing needs and challenges of them.”

(MORE: The Homes Boomers Will Retire In)

Time to Head Off the Crisis

Fortunately, there’s time to address this crisis — but not much. In 15 years, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. And by 2040, we’ll have 28 million who are 80+.

“If things don’t change, low-income older people will be compromising their well-being in many respects,” says Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. “It’s an issue that will affect us all.” Housing, says Vivian Vassallo, Vice President of Housing for AARP Foundation “is a lynchpin for well-being.”

Three of the key problems revealed in the Harvard study, Housing America’s Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population:

1. The cost of renting and homeownership is — to paraphrase former New York City mayoral candidate Jimmy McMillan — already too damn high. And the trend shows no sign of reversing.

“It’s an ironic byproduct of the recovery that rents and home prices are going up, but incomes for seniors are not rising,” says Smoke. U.S. home values rose 6.5 percent over the past year and rents were up 2.8 percent, according to the real estate research firm Zillow. Rents soared by roughly 13 percent in places like San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

(MORE: SPECIAL SECTION: Transforming Life As We Age)

The Harvard study says high housing costs force millions of low-income older adults to sacrifice spending on other necessities, including food and health care. Severely housing cost-burdened households age 80 and over cut back the most on health care, the study says — spending 59 percent less each month on it than those with affordable housing.

A third of adults 50 and older (and 37 percent of those 80+) already spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In some expensive locales, such as New York City, things are even worse. A recent New York Times article said 51 percent of renter households led by an older New Yorker pay at least 35 percent of their income in rent.

Federally-subsizided rental housing is so scarce, the study says, that few older renters live in such apartments. Nearly two-thirds of eligible renters aged 62 and older don’t receive rental subsidies.

2. Americans want to age in place, but they’re living in the wrong places. Studies repeatedly show that the vast majority of people in their 50s and 60s say they want to “age in place,” remaining in their current homes as they get older. Problem is, most older adults live in car-dependent suburbs and rural towns. Just one in five older households in rural areas has access to public transit.

(MORE: 3 Innovative Ways to Age In Place)

Those locales won’t be suitable when they stop driving (about 24 percent of households 80+ are carless) and could isolate them. “It’s a conundrum. Seniors today, and most likely tomorrow, are living in places that are not ideal to enjoy fulfilling lives as we age,” says Smoke.

3. Homes aren’t suited to the physical challenges many older Americans face. Many houses and apartments — which are often old themselves — lack basic accessibility features, preventing older adults with disabilities from living safely and comfortably in their homes, according to the report.

Only 1 percent of U.S. housing units have all five of what are called “universal design” features: no-step entry; single-floor living; extra-wide doorways and halls; accessible electrical controls and switches and lever-style door and faucet handles. Just 57 percent of homes have more than one of them.

And, the study notes, no-step entryways appear in homes of only 46 percent of households headed by someone at least 50 and which have a person with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.


One reason so many homes lack accessibility features: it’s expensive to install them. Adding a ramp can easily run $2,400 and a stairlift can cost $12,000. A home elevator starts at $20,000. In her article, “4 Tips to Help You Age in Place,” MarketWatch’s Amy Hoak wrote that making the average home more livable can often cost $70,000 to $100,000.

Housing Innovations to Address Problems

Thankfully, “there have been some interesting solutions percolating,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP Foundation. “And more will come down the road.” Among the innovations to help address these problems, according to the study:

  • The U.S. Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services agencies have funded 13 state agencies to provide rental subsidies to extremely low-income people with disabilities
  • Ohio offers tax credits of up to $5,000 to homeowners making their residences more accessible
  • Massachusetts provides loans of up to $30,000 for adding accessibility features
  • States such as Colorado, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Orgegon, Texas and Utah give developers incentives to build affordable housing near mass transit
  • Volunteers at the Rebuilding Together nonprofit made 42,000 homes more accessible in 2013

What Still Needs to Be Done

But housing analysts say much more is needed.

Harvard’s Herbert would like to see the federal government offer more rental housing assistance for people over 62 now. And he thinks suburban communities need to alter their zoning rules to allow for more rental construction and accessory dwellings — aka “granny flats” — so elderly parents can live with their adult children.

The latter, I think, will require some suburban homeowners to junk their NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes. It's starting to happen. “I live in Falls Church, Virginia, and we recently approved a large senior assisted living center built in the center of town. Folks tell me that ten years ago, there’s no way in heck the city council would’ve approved it,” says Smoke. “People realize they want seniors to live in our community.”

But can federal, state and local governments really afford to dole out more subsidies and tax credits in today’s budget-crunched era?

Herbert concedes that “it’s hard to make a case to expand rental housing assistance given today’s budget.” Not doing so, however, will only put more budgetary pressure on Medicare and Medicaid, as older Americans face higher health costs and are forced out of their homes and into long-term care facilities.

Says Smoke: “Washington is not a place where people have been working together on positive solutions over the last few years. What the Harvard and AARP study is doing is shining a light to show that it’s time to work together on these issues.” Expanding the availability of tax credits and financial incentives to make homes more accessible “is a no-brainer,” he says.

He also believes communities will work to make themselves more amenable to older residents. “Addressing the needs of seniors will improve communities for everyone,” says Smoke. “I don’t think you want to be a community that screams: ‘If you’re over 65, you’ll want to leave here.’”

I, for one, think the expansion of car services like Uber will make it more possible for the old and the carless to age in place.

AARP’s Marsh Ryerson is optimistic that the crisis the Harvard study describes will be avoided. “Individuals, government and private organizations know that the problem is real and intend to come together for creative solutions,” she says. "We don’t have a choice. It is our obligation to care for our older population.”

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
By SCAN Foundation
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