Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The share of elderly Americans is increasing. National preparedness for their housing needs is not.
We love to talk about Millennials. In headlines today, for example, there's talk about how Millennials prefer cash over credit and how they're the absolute worst in the office (except when they're not). But we could stand to spend more time talking about Baby Boomers. With their ranks marching steadily toward retirement, the nation faces an unprecedented challenge in meeting their needs, especially when it comes to housing. No amount of wearable tech can put off this crisis.
A new report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies shows how quickly the nation is moving toward its golden years. By 2030, one in five Americans will have hit the retirement age (65, if the current age stands). Census projections show that the population aged 50 to 64 will remain steady (and high) over the next three decades. The number of Americans ages 65 to 79 will climb dramatically, more than doubling between 2010 and 2030. And by 2040, there will be more than three times the number of Americans age 80 and older than there were in 2000.
Just compare the share of U.S. county population age 50 or over in 1990:
to that of 2010:
(See the interactive map to toggle between censuses for county-level data.)
Where are all these old folks going to go? They'd like to stay at home. Today, most older residents live in single-family homes that they own: More than 70 percent of residents in their 50s own their homes, and homeownership figures rise for populations into their early 70s. A survey conducted by the AARP finds that 73 percent of respondents ages 45 and older would strongly prefer to stay in their homes.
They may not have much choice. As Emily Badger explained last year, senior Boomers looking to sell the detached single-family homes that characterized the overwhelming majority of housing construction between 1990 and 2010 may have a hard time selling to Millennials. Many young renters who can afford mortgages just can't get them; others prefer new options in the city to single-family homes in the suburbs, including condos.
Increasingly, the housing stock built by and for Baby Boomers doesn't meet anyone's needs—neither a younger generation looking for starter homes that don't exist, nor an older generation confronted by accessibility challenges. And a growing share of older households is struggling with high housing costs and mortgage debt, challenges usually associated with Millennials and Gen-Xers. More than twice as many seniors age 65 and older carried mortgage debt in 2010 than did in 1992. Some 21 million older adults are renters.
While affordability is a problem on the horizon for some older residents, accessibility challenges are virtually guaranteed for all. While increased life expectancy and a factor that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites as "compression of morbidity" means that older generations (even beyond the Baby Boomers) are living actively later into life, disability eventually affects almost everyone. One of the great equalizers in life, disability arrives without any deference to income or race. (Privilege in these realms often makes it easier for people to adjust to disabilities, of course.)
The housing stock built for Baby Boomers largely wasn't designed with accessibility in mind. There are five universal-design housing features that tend to address a variety of disabilities that residents face as they age: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets set at lower heights; extra-wide hallways and doors; and lever-style doors and faucets. Nearly 90 percent of existing homes have one of these features, according to the report—but just 57 percent have two.
Homes built more recently are more likely to accommodate all five universal-design features. Among these universal-design features, the one that's most common in homes today is the single floor. More than 86 percent of homes in non-metro areas features single-floor living. These figures for cities and suburbs are high as well: 74 and 72 percent, respectively.
Yet these detached, single-floor, single-family homes—and the automobile-centric society that comes with them—are only going to fall further out of step with the needs of residents over time. And sooner rather than later. Homes can be retrofitted with lever-style handles and no-step entries (albeit at great expense). It's much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them.