December 21, 2016 / 12:06 PM / 7 months ago

COLUMN-Heading off a housing crisis for U.S. seniors

5 Min Read

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
    By Mark Miller
    CHICAGO, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Debates about improving
America's infrastructure typically focus on projects like
bridges, roads, railroads and power grids. But with
President-Elect Donald Trump calling for $1 trillion in
infrastructure spending over the next 10 years, here is an item
that should be added to that list: affordable housing for
seniors.
    By 2035, one of every three U.S. households will be headed
by someone aged 65 or older, according to a new study by the
Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) - an increase of
a whopping 66 percent to 50 million households. Households
headed by people aged 80 and older will increase at the fastest
rate - more than doubling to 16 million.
    We are not ready for this dramatic transformation - not even
close, the Harvard researchers conclude.
    Wealthier people will have the means to adapt their housing
to fit their needs - although signs suggest few are laying the
groundwork for that. Less than 5 percent of homes have elements
such as zero-step home entrances, single-floor living and wide
halls and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs, according
to JCHS.
    But the biggest problem will be a bulging population of
low-income seniors.
    The number of seniors earning less than 80 percent of their
area median income will nearly double by 2035, to 27 million,
according to the report. These households will face enormous
challenges paying for housing and supportive services, with
housing expenses sapping resources bad needed for food and
healthcare. 
    JCHS defines any housing cost higher than 30 percent of
income as a "burden," and the number of burdened households will
rise sharply over the coming two decades: by 2035, some 8.6
million people will be paying more than half their income for
housing.
    "Our shifting demographic outlook really brings with it a
lot of housing needs that we haven't figured out how to fill,"
said Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at JCHS and
the report's lead author.
    
    DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS
    Along with affordability, there will be a huge need for
housing that is physically accessible as the number of older
Americans with disabilities and dementia soars. Social isolation
is another concern, especially as baby boomers move into their
eighties and beyond. The country's over-80 population is
forecast to double by 2035 to 24 million; 70 percent of
that growth will take place after the year 2025.
    The demographic trends driving these numbers have been
evident for decades. But a problem that once seemed far off in
the future is now on our doorstep, argues Linda Couch, director
of housing policy and priorities at Leading Age, an association
representing 6,000 aging services agencies. "We're at a moment
where we have to decide how we are going to address the housing
needs of seniors," she said.
    The federal government provides rental assistance to
low-income seniors through public housing, housing choice
vouchers and subsidized affordable housing, but only a third of
eligible seniors receive help due to funding problems. "The
waiting lists are very long," Couch said.
    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
has a program - known as Section 202 - that funds development of
rental housing for very low-income elderly households, but
funding has been falling since 2008, and Congress has not
appropriated any new funding for housing unit construction under
the program since fiscal year 2011.
    
    MAJOR INVESTMENT 
    The JCHS report recommends increasing the amount of
accessible housing units for disabled seniors, and creating
programs to help older owners shoulder housing cost burdens,
such as property taxes and utility bills. It also calls for
increased subsidies to older renters, and strengthened ties
between housing and delivery of community-based healthcare
services.
    Leading Age is calling for a major housing investment -
perhaps the advocates should call it infrastructure - of $600
million in fiscal 2018. A new HUD-administered housing fund
would be the initial source of dollars that could leverage tax
credits and state and local resources to help fund nonprofit
development for very-low income seniors.
    Leading Age also advocates expansion of the existing
Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which provides dollar-for-dollar
tax credits for investments in affordable housing. The group
also is pushing for creation of a "special purpose voucher" that
would provide rental assistance to low-income seniors. 
    Good ideas, all - and they should be put in motion now,
before the senior housing crisis is in full bloom. Says Couch:
"The challenges of an aging population are upon us - no longer
in the future. How we address these needs will be a true test of
our moral character."
    

 (Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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