Growing older comes with a unique set of challenges: increasing health problems, a dwindling bank account, learning to live on a fixed income, loss of independence, decreased social interaction and, for some, an unfamiliar state of vulnerability. One of the most pressing issues facing seniors, however, is that most basic of needs — a safe and affordable place to live.
According to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) of Harvard University, by 2030, the number of U.S. baby boomers aged 65-74 will reach 38.6 million, and the number of 75-84-year-olds will reach 30.1 million by 2040.
Some seniors have the financial resources to pick and choose where and how they will live, but for many, affordability is the issue, according to Alayna Waldrum, senior housing consultant, advocate and former housing legislative representative for LeadingAge, a national senior advocacy group comprised of thousands of nonprofits.
"If you have substantial income, or you have resources, then housing really isn’t going to be an issue," she said. "You can arrange the housing that you need."
Waldrum said the most affordable housing option for very-low-income seniors over the age of 62 has been the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 202 program, which provides funding to housing nonprofits in two ways. One method is project rental assistance contracts, through which money is directed to a qualifying senior development to cover the difference between residents’ rent payments and the cost of operations.
The other avenue of assistance is through capital advances. In this scenario, HUD pays for the cost of developing, purchasing or rehabilitating a development, and no repayment of that investment is required as long as the housing remains available to very-low-income seniors for at least 40 years.
However, the bad news for the very-low-income segment of the rapidly increasing senior population, projected to be 6.5 million households by 2024, is that HUD provided its last round of capital advance funding in 2012, with no current plans to re-start that program or anything similar.
"They’re not being built anymore," Waldrum said. "There is no program now that pays for the construction of this type of housing, and that is going to be a major challenge nationally."
In addition, the 40-year obligation attached to the capital advance program is ending for many developments, Waldrum said, and some owners are choosing to either sell the properties or convert them to market-rate housing, further squeezing an already tight national supply of approximately 300,000 units.
The next most-affordable housing option for seniors, Waldrum said, is through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program. Simply put, investors receive a sizeable federal tax credit for financing certain types of low-income housing. In addition, resident income limits for LIHTC housing are not as stringent as they are for very-low-income units.
"LIHTC has always played a prominent role in the creation and preservation of affordable senior housing," said Charles Anderson, executive vice president of acquisitions at City Real Estate Advisors, Inc. City Real Estate is a syndicator of affordable housing tax credits and facilitates and manages affordable housing projects throughout the U.S. "In many of those cases," Anderson said, "HUD has played the important role of providing rental subsidy, permanent loan proceeds or both."
Anderson said that while many affordable housing professionals believe seniors and others in need are underserved, most would agree the LIHTC program has been a success, and, in fact, he said, the LIHTC program is where much of the senior housing development activity has been and will continue to be.
"As it relates to current activity forecasts, we are expecting our production level to increase roughly 30% year over year for fiscal year 2016.," he said. "We are on track in accomplishing this goal, and we are generally optimistic about the market supply and demand metrics we are seeing."
New ideas for older residents
However, given the number of people expected to hit senior status in the next 25 years, standard housing options might not be enough. Along those lines, homesharing is an option gaining popularity among seniors.
Types of homesharing range from roommate matching services to multigenerational housing where younger people move into a senior’s home to give support and day-to-day companionship in exchange for free or low rent.
For example, a nursing home in the Netherlands provides free housing for college students in exchange for 30 hours a week of being "good neighbors" to the senior residents, providing much needed social interaction to combat the sense of loneliness and isolation so prevalent in these types of facilities.
Jeff Salter, founder of Caring Senior Service, said the natural solution is to find ways to allow as many seniors as possible to "age in place" in their existing homes because "there’s no possible way to build enough facilities to house all the seniors that are going to need help" in the coming years.
Salter said his experience has been, and as some studies have suggested, that when people have to leave their homes for a long-term care facility, their life span can shorten. "Dorm living is great when you’re young and want new experiences, and your life is all ahead of you," he said. However, according to Salter, for seniors who are used to living independently, "being thrust into a scenario where you’re now in a dorm setting again at the end of your life is actually quite depressing."
Salter said the biggest obstacle to seniors being able to stay in their homes is the risk of a fall, and most senior homes are not equipped to prevent them. "Simple things like installing grab bars in the bathroom and teaching people how to actually use those grab bars and convincing them that they need to use them — that’s just an education process."
According to the JCHS, 5.5 million older households include someone with mobility difficulty but are without accessibility modifications, such as no-step entryways and ramps. They conclude that there is at least a $13 billion opportunity for the remodeling industry just by installing these features alone.
Waldrum said the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center is a respected aging-in-place advocate. The Washington, DC, think tank is exploring myriad ways, from smart home technology to urban planning, to help seniors stay in their homes.
Salter said being able to age in place is all about planning before a fall or a crisis happens — "things they can do early on, so as they progress, they have a long-term plan of what the next steps are," Salter said.
Waldrum believes housing solutions for the country’s present and future senior populations are dependent on how much Washington, and the rest of the country, is willing to face the realities of aging. "We have a larger percentage of people than ever before who aren’t interested in the policy of housing, and that makes it challenging for us to get our message across," he said.