Over the next two decades, the number of older Americans is poised to skyrocket, posing unprecedented challenges for the United States.
Baby boomers, who were the largest living generation in the United States until recently, are now passing age 70 and heading into their retirement years. The number of Americans aged 65 and older will surge to 79 million by 2035, up from 48 million today, while the cohort of those 80 and older is projected to double.
With the graying of the U.S. population, housing will unfortunately become a growing source of instability for millions of seniors — that is, unless the public, private, and philanthropic sectors collaborate to take comprehensive action.
Millions of seniors are working well into their 70s to preserve their standard of living, but for many work simply isn’t possible or fails to generate enough income to pay for the rising cost of housing as well as food, transportation, and health care.
These financial stresses are most pronounced among single older adults. According to the National Council on Aging, nearly 19% of these single seniors live below the poverty line, while another 34% live on the brink of poverty. Older women are particularly at risk: The poverty rate among older women is nearly 50% higher than among older men, with the gap widening with age.
In addition, by 2035, more than 17 million seniors—both renters and homeowners—are projected to pay in excess of 30% of their income for housing alone. Seniors who devote such a large share of their income to housing are often forced to make impossible decisions on whether to pay the rent or buy groceries and vital medicines instead.
Responding to these challenges will require a comprehensive suite of supply-side and demand-side solutions.
Through the Sec. 202 program, Congress funded the creation of approximately 2,800 properties for low-income seniors serving over 120,000 households between 1990 and 2012. Unfortunately, just as the baby boomers were reaching retirement age, funding for new construction under Sec. 202 ended. Congress should fund mechanisms to incentivize both public and private investment in affordable senior rental homes.
In addition, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that we should encourage the construction of new affordable housing for both seniors and families through an expanded low-income housing tax credit. Bipartisan legislation has recently been introduced in Congress that would accomplish this goal.
It’s also essential to preserve the current inventory of affordable senior homes. Unfortunately, many of these homes are in serious need of repairs and upgrades. Expanding the reach of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which allows private investors to invest much-needed capital to help modernize public housing, is in order.
On the demand side, Congress should seriously consider expanding the amount of rental assistance provided to the lowest-income seniors through federal housing vouchers. Providing targeted rental assistance to our nation’s veterans has helped prevent homelessness and alleviate severe rental cost burdens among this well-deserving group of Americans. Why not adopt a similar approach to help the lowest-income seniors?
To maximize the benefits of affordable senior housing, it’s critical to link this housing to supportive services.
New research is showing that access to a stable, affordable home can actually lower health-care spending among households with high medical needs and greater risk of experiencing health-care emergencies. A recent study in Oregon found that residents used more primary-care doctors and less emergency-room care after moving into affordable homes, pushing down health-care costs. The study also concluded that affordable housing properties with doctors or nurses on site had even greater reductions in usage of expensive emergency rooms. Another study has found that hospitalization rates were 18% lower at affordable housing properties where service coordinators could help connect residents to the care they need.
Despite potential cost savings, longstanding bureaucratic silos in the federal government have made it difficult to create programs that provide an integrated funding stream for housing and medical services.
As a world-renowned medical doctor, Ben Carson, President Trump’s HUD secretary, should work with fellow physician, Tom Price, the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, to eliminate unnecessary red tape that prevents housing and health-care providers from collaborating.
Across the country, the future is uncertain for millions of seniors. They have spent decades contributing to the economy, raising children and grandchildren. With the population of older adults on the brink of a major expansion, it’s time for our nation’s leaders to commit to ensuring America’s seniors have a stable, affordable place to call home.
Eileen Fitzgerald is the president and CEO of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF). SAHF’s mission is to lead policy innovation and advance excellence in the delivery of affordable rental homes that expand opportunity and promote dignity for residents.
Ali Solis is president and CEO of Make Room. Make Room gives a voice to struggling renters and elevates rental housing on the agendas of our nation's leaders.