Senior-specific solutions for affordable housing needed as Baby Boomers retire

BY KATE COIL

For many, housing is seen as an issue for younger people, especially those with young families who are starting out in life, but with an estimated 98 million Americans aged 65 or older expected by the year 2060, providing affordable and accessible housing for senior citizens is quickly becoming one of the top housing issues faced in communities across Tennessee.
Homes may be one of the few assets many senior citizens have with about 78 percent of U.S. seniors owning a home free and clear. James Foulds, a retired urban planner who chairs AARP Tennessee Livability Council and sits on its executive board, said most of these seniors don’t plan on going very far after they retire.
“AARP research has indicated that more than 90 percent of seniors want to stay in their own home,” Foulds said. “A very high percentage want to stay in their own neighborhood. However, sometimes staying in your home is not possible because of physical limitations, economic limitations, or both.”
Despite having higher rates of homeownership, homes owned by seniors are often older than those owned by younger residents. In 2015, the average home occupied by a senior resident in the U.S. was built in 1969. These older homes may often be in need of costly repairs seniors cannot afford to manage on their own.
Additionally, the older seniors are, the more likely they will need some sort of modifications to their home to keep living there. The Census Bureau has also found that with modern health care advancements, the average person will live an additional 19.4 years past the age of 65, an average of 20.6 years for women and 18 years for men. A growing number of senior citizens will need housing solutions longer than ever before.
“A lot of livability is a function of income and geography,” Foulds said. “I always put accessibility and affordability together. Accessibility is both the physical ability to get in and out of the structure itself and accessibility of the neighborhood to transportation systems, grocery stores, healthcare, entertainment and so forth. Affordability is not just being able to pay for the unit you want to live in; it’s also being able to pay for the other support services you need like transportation, food, and utilities.”
Transportation may also become an important facet of affordable housing for seniors, especially those who are no longer able to drive but want to remain in their current residence and stay active in their communities.
“Not everybody has a car, and if you have to pay substantial to access a unit that is decent, safe, and sanitary through public transportation, shuttle systems, or your own private vehicles, it can be a challenge to afford a place to live,” Foulds said. “Adding disability challenges becomes significantly burdensome on people.”
Senior citizens often find themselves on fixed incomes, which can give them fewer housing options. Nancy Burnette, executive director of Maryville Housing Authority, said that many do not realize that seniors are making up a growing portion of Section 8 applicants and residents of public housing programs.
“When I meet with the public, their biggest conception about public housing is that everyone here is unemployed and should be working,” Burnette said. “Our population specifically here in Maryville is 70 percent elderly, disabled, and/or handicapped. We are providing them with a good, safe place to live. This is usually the place they stay until they go into a nursing home or assisted living.”
Burnette said she is already seeing an increase in seniors in the program.
“We already have such a large population, and we are starting to see that influx of baby boomers,” she said. “It used to be our average population of elderly residents was about 60 percent, and now it’s about 73 percent. That population is definitely edging up, so I see that being an increasing problem.
One of the reasons the older population in public housing programs is growing is because a large portion of senior citizens rely on programs like Social Security and Medicaid to keep them afloat financially.
An estimated 84 percent of senior citizens receive Social Security, and more than a third of senior citizens reported that Social Security made up 90 percent of their income or more. Already, Tennessee has 8.9 percent of its elderly residents living below poverty level.
That doesn’t mean seniors aren’t still working past retirement age.
Foulds said AARP surveys found that many seniors keep working past retirement age, both in their careers as well as taking other forms of employment after retiring from another job. An estimated 51 percent of seniors keep a job after the age of 65.
Senior men are more likely to have higher incomes than their female counterparts with the average man over the age of 65 reporting an annual income of $31,618 in 2016. The average woman of the same age bracket only reported an income of $18,380 the same year.
Conversely, senior women are more likely to live in poverty. Senior women are also more likely to fall below the poverty line the older they live.
“When you retire, your income usually goes down rather than up,” Foulds said. “Everyone is on a budget whether they are working or not.”
Burnette said for residents in Maryville’s public housing programs the average gross income for elderly and disabled residents is $13,664, less than the average yearly income of $17,173 for those in the program who are actively employed.
“Rent pay in the program is 30 percent of adjusted monthly income including utilities,” she said. “People also need to be able to live beyond their rent. If it takes everything you have to put a roof over your head, you can’t buy quality food and you can’t pay for transportation needs.”
Foulds said seniors are not exempt from high rental prices that are starting to impact even rural communities across the country.
“There is often an issue between what the average market value is and what your income is,” he said. “If seniors are spending 50 percent on an average basis for housing, that tells you they are forgoing food, medicine, and transportation to simply have a place to live.”
Another need many see on the horizon is for homes that are built specifically to accommodate elderly and disabled residents. One of the upcoming trends in housing is universal design, which encourages homes to be designed or adapted where there is a bedroom and full-bath on the first floor and at least one zero-grade entrance, meaning there are no steps to the entrance
As more and more seniors enter government housing programs, Burnette said there will be more needs for living space that is suited to the needs of senior citizens in the public sector as well.
“We do reasonable accommodations frequently, such as ramps and bedroom units equipped for wheelchairs,” she said. “Occasionally, they will also have a family member in a larger unit that is in a wheelchair we have to make accommodations for. Putting up grab bars in showers is another common request. For those who are hard of hearing, we have special smoke alarms that are flash lights instead of a sound. ”
Burnette said that the increased number of elderly residents may also bump up waiting list time for others .
“It can be a while before people move into that nursing home,” she said. “We are driven by date and time of the application, so it’s important to start the process as soon as possible. We have a waiting list that is about two-to-three years long for public housing and a little longer than that for Section 8. “
To meet the needs of the state’s growing 65-plus population, AARP and other organizations are encouraging Tennessee communities to begin evaluating what their own needs are and how they can be met through public and private partnerships.
Foulds said AARP’s Tennessee chapter has already partnered with groups like the Tennessee Affordable Housing Coalition and Tennessee Housing Development Authority to look at senior issues.
“There isn’t a one-size fits all solution. We have to look across the board and begin to build local policies that meet needs,” he said. “AARP Tennessee is supporting initiatives for providing affordable homes and services to the 55 and 65-plus population. We supported in Nashville a non-profit entity called Urban Housing Solution’s application to the Tennessee Housing Authority for tax credits on a project on North Nashville that will provide housing for the older population.”
Likewise, Foulds said AARP has programs for communities to help assess their needs and develop action plans.
“The whole dynamic of the population curve is changing and will be completely changed by 2035,” he said. “That will put an impact on everything, not only household financial budgets but community budgets. Communities may have to re-evaluate what services they can reasonably provide given their aging populations.”
When it comes to finding the best housing solutions, Foulds said local solutions are always the best.
“Understand the problem in your own community,” Foulds said. “Don’t depend on national or statewide statistics to define the problem for you. Do your own survey work. ”