Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What Can We Learn from Attempts to Reduce the Cost of Affordable Housing?

by Sam LaTronica
Gramlich Fellow
Midwestern CDCs trying to build affordable homes that do not require development subsidies have identified three potentially promising strategies: building smaller homes, utilizing factory-built homes, and creatively designing houses to get more out of them. In a new working paper that grows out my work as an Edward M. Gramlich Fellow in Community and Economic Development I conclude that while each technique presents opportunities for cost savings, each also comes with its own set of challenges.

The fellowship, which is co-sponsored by the Joint Center for Housing Studies and NeighborWorks® America, also expanded my horizons because for years, my conception of new “affordable housing” had been limited to the standard multifamily properties developed in larger urban areas. This was the type of affordable housing I had seen since moving to the Boston area, as well as working for an affordable advocacy organization in the San Francisco Bay Area prior to attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

As a Gramlich Fellow in the summer of 2015, I was exposed to a new region and new approach to affordable housing. The Midwestern CDCs, which were part of NeighborWorks® America’s national network, often had in-house general contractors and focused on building and selling affordable single-family homes, in both urban and rural areas. Given the dearth of housing subsidies, particularly subsidies for affordable housing in rural areas, these CDCs were trying to find cost-saving construction techniques that would allow them to build affordable housing without development subsidies.

The Rambler, a single-family home constructed by the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. The home is 1,092 square feet on the main floor with another 1,092 square feet of unfinished basement space that can be converted into living space or more bedrooms at a later date. This home was constructed in 2014 with an asking price of $153,900.

Through reading popular literature on home construction, analyzing building trends, conducting interviews with CDC leaders, and visiting new developments in the Midwest, it became clear that CDCs were interested in pursuing three potential cost saving techniques: building smaller homes, using factory-built homes, and creatively designing houses to get more out of them.

Smaller homes are theoretically cheaper to build because they simply require fewer materials and less construction time. Once occupied, these houses not only can be cheaper to heat or cool but also will cost less to maintain. Smaller footprints also make it possible to build these homes on smaller or irregularly shaped lots, which helps expand the options for CDCs.

However, cost savings are not always realized when buildings are smaller. Once land and other development costs are factored in, it is possible that building smaller homes will be only slightly cheaper than building larger homes on the same lot. Moreover, the marginal cost of constructing a few hundred more square feet might allow the CDC to sell the house for more money while still keeping it affordable. Some CDC leaders also worry that producing affordable homes that are much smaller than new market-rate homes would create obvious distinctions between income levels and stigmatize the people living in the new, smaller homes. Finally, while building smaller can be smart for a number of reasons, most people still want bigger homes as evidenced by the fact that average house sizes have been increasing and have recently surpassed pre-recession levels. This suggests that without a shift in the overall market, smaller homes may not be a particularly appealing option for CDCs trying to build affordable housing.

While factory-built construction techniques are not necessarily new, they are new to many CDCs. Many Midwestern CDCs are currently experimenting with (or exploring the possibility of using) both modular homes and homes made from structural insulated panels (SIPs). Factory-built homes have the benefit of being produced mostly indoors and using assembly line techniques, which can significantly reduce onsite construction time and protect against weather delays, theft, vandalism, etc. Moreover, homes built in factory-controlled settings can be tighter and more energy efficient and make more efficient usage of building materials (which should reduce their cost).

Like building smaller, however, the cost savings that are touted in popular literature are harder to realize in practice. If CDCs, architects, contractors, and subcontractors do not have enough experience working with factory-built housing, then the development process can hit major roadblocks that negate the hypothetical cost savings that would result from a shorter construction period and lower production costs. In fact, some CDCs that experimented with these techniques ended up with homes that cost far more than they would have cost using traditional stick-built techniques.

Finally, creatively designing houses can supplement the previous construction types to get the most out of new homes. This can come in many forms. Designing attached accessory dwelling units will add more units to the housing stock and can supplement the primary tenant’s income.  Co-housing development can utilize scale and reduce the per-owner development costs. Open floor plans can make smaller homes more palatable and unfinished buildouts can reduce costs while allowing families to later customize their home to meet their particular needs.

In the end, there is no silver bullet that can be used to build affordable single-family homes without a development subsidy. However, there are many techniques that, when combined, could produce significant cost savings. CDC leaders interested in pursuing these approaches should remember that the benefits of these techniques, as described in popular literature, do not always materialize in practice. Therefore, CDC leaders should learn from others who have already experimented with them. They should also establish strong relationships with architects and contractors who have experience with these techniques, so that they reduce the likelihood of delays that would drive up costs. Hopefully, by persevering and learning from others, the CDCs can increase the production of affordable homes.

Sam LaTronica, who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2016, was a 2015 recipient of the TheEdward M. Gramlich Fellowship in Community and Economic Development, which is co-sponsored by NeighborWorks®America and the Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Defining the Generations Redux

by George Masnick
Senior Research Fellow
How should we define the baby boom, Generation X, and the millennial generation?

In a Joint Center blog published in 2012, I argued that using 20-year age spans for each generation would make it easier to compare them. Since many researchers still use generational definitions that span different and inconsistent age ranges, particularly for millennials, it is perhaps timely to reframe and restate my case.

In keeping with my recommendations, the Joint Center has long identified the cohort born between 1945 and 1964 as baby boomers.Those born between 1965 and 1984 are Generation X, and the cohort born between 1985 and 2004 are millennials (Figure 1). 

However, other analysts use several different earlier dates to usher in the millennial generation, apparently because they want to ensure that the oldest member of this cohort were considered adults at the dawn of the new millennium (i.e. they had turned 18 or 20 in the year 2000). This definition meant that by 2015, the oldest millennials were in their mid-30s, old enough to prompt compelling stories about how many 30-somethings were still living with parents, living in cities, forsaking marriage and childbearing, and delaying homeownership. In contrast, under my recommended cut-off dates, the oldest millennials turned age 20 in 2005 and didn’t start entering their 30s until 2015.


Besides making it easier to compare generations, there are several reasons why the millennial generation should start with those born in 1985 and turning 20 in 2005. As I noted in my 2012 blog, 1985 was the year that U.S. births once again exceeded 3.7 million, the approximate number that demarcated the beginning and the end of the baby boom, as well as the beginning and the end of the “baby bust” that defines Generation X.

Three other big changes occurred shortly after 2005 that significantly altered the way young adults live. First, social media participation skyrocketed. Facebook became available to everyone age 13 and older with a valid e-mail address in September 2006. Twitter became public in 2006. The first iPhone was released in June of 2007. As a result of these and other changes, the share of adults using social media rose from five percent in 2005 to 69 percent in 2016, according to a recent Pew Research publication.

Second, student loan debt outstanding more than tripled between 2005 and 2016, rising from $400 billion to over $1.3 trillion. This high level of debt is thought to affect everything from leaving the parental home, to getting married and starting a family, and purchasing a first home. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the economic changes that led to the Great Recession hit hardest among young adults who were in their 20s shortly after 2005. The unemployment rate of adults older than 25 without a high school degree rose from below six percent in late 2006 to 15 percent in mid-2009. (Those with a high school degree or more followed this trend within a year.) Unemployment rates of those with a high school degree or more have slowly improved, but still remain above pre-recession levels. Unemployment rates for those with less than a high school degree have returned to their pre-recession elevated levels, but people in this group generally are making less money and receiving fewer benefits than they did before the recession. Meanwhile, housing costs have returned to, or now exceed, their pre-recession levels.

Using equally broad 20-year age spans produces several important findings about the different generations. To start with, the millennial generation has been larger than the baby boom generation, now or at any other previous time since the boomers were age 10-29 in 1975 (Figure 2). Millennials now number almost 87 million compared to less than 79 million for baby boomers at the same age. This is in contrast to findings of a 2016 Pew Research study that compared generations using millennials with a smaller age range and found roughly equal numbers between these two generations in 2015 (75 million).


Using consistent age spans also shows the changing ways that immigration has affected the number of people in each generation. In 1995, when Generation X was age 10-29, it was smaller than the baby boom generation was in 1955, when it was the same age. However, because of immigration, by 2005, when Generation X was age 20-39, it already exceeded the number of baby boomers at the same age. 

Immigrants also make up a small but growing share of millennials. In 2015, 9.6 percent of millennials were foreign born compared to 21.4 percent of Generation X, and 15.3 percent of baby boomers (Figure 3). However, according to the latest Census Bureau population projections, the share of millennials who are foreign born is expected to rise to 20.9 percent in 2035 when they are age 30-49, which will boost the number of millennials to 97.3 million (Figure 4).  


* Data do not allow 85-89 year olds from 85+ age group

Finally, the constant-age-span approach allows us to identify significant generational differences in race and ethnicity. Overall, in 2015, 45.4 percent of millennials, 41 percent of Generation X, and 28.6 percent of baby boomers were minorities (i.e. non-Hispanic Blacks, non-Hispanic Asian/Others, or Hispanics of any race). Moreover, because of continued immigration, the share of millennials who are minorities is projected to rise to almost 50 percent in 2035 and the share of Generation X is projected to rise slightly to 42.4 percent. In contrast, the share of baby boomers who are minorities is projected to hold constant at 28.6 percent. 

These differences reflect changes for both foreign-born and native-born members of each generation. In 2015, fully 85 percent of both foreign-born millennials and foreign-born members of Generation X were minorities.  In contrast, only 78.5 percent of foreign-born baby boomers were minorities. Moreover, while 41.2 percent of native-born millennials were minorities, only 29 percent of native-born members of Generation X and 19.6 percent of native-born baby boomers were minorities (Figure 5).

* Data do not allow 85-89 year olds from 85+ age group

Looking forward to 2035, the size of the baby boom cohort will drop to about 60 million people because a growing number of baby boomers will pass away. Many millennials and members of Generation X will want to live in the housing units formerly occupied by those baby boomers. Their ability to do so will not only be shaped by the fundamental economic and social changes discussed above but also by whether the large numbers of racial and ethnic minorities in these two generations will have full access to those housing markets, and with it, the ability to achieve the American dream. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When Do Renters Behave Like Homeowners? High Rent, Price Anxiety, and NIMBYism

by Michael Hankinson
Meyer Fellow
In theory, renters and homeowners disagree about proposals to build new housing in their communities, particularly if that housing is close to where they live. However, in practice, this is not always the case. 

Rather, in a new Joint Center working paper that is based on new national-level experimental data and city-specific behavioral data, I find that in high-housing cost cities, renters and homeowners both oppose new residential developments proposed for their neighborhoods. However, in high-cost markets renters are still more likely than homeowners to support citywide increases in the supply of housing. Since changes in city governments over the past several decades have generally strengthened the power of neighborhood-level opponents to proposed projects, my findings help explain why it is so hard to build new housing in expensive cities even when there is citywide support for that housing.

NIMBYism and the Rising Cost of Housing

Since 1970, housing prices in the nation’s most expensive metropolitan areas have dramatically increased. Real prices have doubled in New York City and Los Angeles and nearly tripled in San Francisco. Driving this appreciation is an inability of new housing supply to keep up with demand. Even accounting for the cost of materials and natural geographic constraints on supply, the dominant factor behind this decoupling of supply and demand is political regulation, such as limits on the density of new housing developments and caps on the number of permits issued by a localities’ government.
                                               
These limits are a classic example of the NIMBY (Not in My BackYard) phenomenon. Even if residents support a citywide increase in the supply of housing, they may still oppose specific projects in their neighborhood. This seeming disconnect between views on citywide and local development policies creates a classic collective action problem for those policymakers who must find ways to reconcile the conflicting views.  

Photo by Michael Hogan/Flickr

Despite its popularity as a scapegoat, there is no individual-level, empirical data on how NIMBYism operates and among whom.
 Students of urban politics generally assume that homeowners have strong NIMBY tendencies not only because they benefit from rising house prices but also because they worry that nearby new housing units, particularly nearby subsidized housing units, might decrease the value of their home.

There is less consensus on (or studies of) how renters view new development. New supply may help ease prices for renters but their pro-development views may not be reflected in local policies because renters are less likely to become politically involved than highly motivated homeowners.  Alternatively, renters might not favor new projects if they believe the units will increase demand in their neighborhood, which, in turn, will lead to increased housing prices. To date, however, there has been very little research on how renters view development projects and whether their views differ from those of homeowners.
                                               
Measuring NIMBYism

To measure NIMBYism and general support for new housing, I collected two unique datasets. I conducted the first experimental tests of NIMBYism through an online survey of 3,019 respondents across 655 cities in 47 states. Respondents were asked about their support for development policies, including whether they would support a 10 percent increase in their city’s housing supply, with the question customized to each respondent’s city, stating how many homes and apartments currently exist and how many more would be built. Respondents also participated in an experiment where they were presented with two housing developments and asked which of the two proposals they preferred for their city. Each proposed development was described using several attributes, such as height and affordability level. To measure NIMBYism, respondents were also told how far each the of developments would be from their home, from two miles away to ⅛ mile away. By randomly varying this distance along with the other attributes, I was able to measure respondents’ sensitivity to proximity (NIMBYism), holding all other attributes equal.

To supplement this national survey, I also conducted a 1,660-person exit poll during the 2015 San Francisco election. Voters at 26 polling locations were asked their opinions on several housing-related ballot propositions similar to those presented in the national survey.

When Renters Behave Like Homeowners

As noted, renters and homeowners are expected to disagree on support for new housing, with NIMBY homeowners opposing citywide and neighborhood development and renters likely supporting the new supply. In line with existing theory, homeowners in my national survey largely opposed the proposed 10 percent increase in their city’s housing supply (28 percent approval), while a majority of renters supported the new supply (59 percent approval). Likewise, when asked in the experiment which of two randomly generated buildings they would prefer for their city, homeowners exhibited consistent NIMBYism, preferring buildings that were farther away from their home. In contrast, renters on average did not pick buildings based on distance from their home. If anything, renters preferred affordable housing that was closer to their home, displaying a YIMBY or ‘Yes in My BackYard’ attitude. In short, homeowners and renters tend to have very different attitudes towards both NIMBYism and the citywide housing supply.

However, in high-rent cities, renters look far more like homeowners. Instead of paying little attention to the location of proposed new housing, renters in expensive cities are just as NIMBY towards market-rate housing as homeowners. Moreover, this renter opposition to nearby development does not mean they support less new development overall. In fact, renters in expensive cities show just as much support for a 10 percent increase in their city’s housing supply as renters in more affordable cities. The main difference between these groups of renters is their NIMBYism.

Results from the San Francisco exit poll show a similar combination of supporting supply citywide, but opposing it locally. When asked about a 10 percent increase in the San Francisco housing supply, both renters and homeowners expressed high levels of support, at 84 percent and 73 percent approval, respectively. But, somewhat surprisingly, when asked if they would support a ban on market-rate development in their neighborhood, renters showed far more NIMBYism than homeowners, with 62 percent of renters supporting the NIMBY ban compared to 40 percent of homeowners.

NIMBYism and How We Permit Housing

Renters in high-rent cities generally both want new housing citywide but behave like homeowners when it comes to their own neighborhood. These scale-dependent preferences present a policy challenge for keeping cities affordable. Over the past 40 years, city governments have increasingly empowered neighborhoods to weigh-in on housing proposals through formal planning institutions. In doing so, these decisions have amplified NIMBYism and the ability to reject new housing, without maintaining a counterweight for the broader interest for new supply citywide. In other words, while most residents may support new housing for the city as a whole, both homeowners and renters are willing and increasingly able to block that supply in their own neighborhood, effectively constraining the housing supply citywide. This is housing’s collective action problem.

In separate research, I am empirically testing the effect of these strengthened neighborhood institutions on the rate of housing permitting since 1980. Likewise, I am conducting further experimental research on what types of citywide housing proposals are able to win the greatest support among both homeowners and renters. Hopefully, by measuring the tradeoffs between the ‘city’ and ‘neighborhood’ in the politics of housing, we can better address the deepening affordability crisis facing many American cities.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How are Community Development Organizations Helping Build Healthy Places?

by Alina Schnake-Mahl
Gramlich Fellow
The great majority of America’s high-performing community development organizations (CDOs) are actively tackling health challenges in their communities. In a new working paper* published by NeighborWorks® America and the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Sarah Norman (NeighborWorks’ Director of Healthy Homes & Communities) and I examine how CDOs engaged in activities at the nexus of health, housing and community development. 

Drawing on a survey of the 242 high-performing CDOs in the NeighborWorks network, we found that 89 percent of the surveyed organizations reported activities and strategies that explicitly promoted health in 2015 – from green and healthy building standards to on-site, coordinated health services. We also found that 83.3 percent of organizations worked with partners to support their efforts.  Increases in these activities, we noted, have been spurred by recent changes in the American health-care system and philanthropic grantmaking that together have provided new opportunities for CDOs to partner with other community entities to address health challenges.

CDOs used a variety of approaches, many of them focused on healthy homes and access to healthy food. For example, Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing provider based in north Texas since 1990, addresses the health and social needs of residents through health and wellness classes; smoke-free, green and healthy rental homes; community gardens and walking paths; as well as childcare and after school programming that addresses literacy and physical fitness. An evaluation of these programs showed improvements on measures of quality of life and well-being for program participants.


Photo courtesy of Foundation Communities

Similarly, REACH CDC – an affordable housing developer and property management company serving Portland, Oregon – is a member of a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) that provides enhanced health and social service coordination for 1,400 residents at 11 federally subsidized, independent-living, affordable-housing properties in Portland. Project elements include an on-site Federally Qualified Health Center; culturally specific services for non-English-speaking residents; food distribution for homebound residents and other residents experiencing food insecurity; health navigators; and free mental health consultations. Multiple evaluations documented improvements in quality of life and well-being for residents as well as cost savings for Medicaid

Taken as a whole, the study shows that CDOs have undertaken significant efforts to explicitly improve the health of the communities they serve. Additionally, as the health care system increasingly targets the social determinants of health, there are new opportunities for engagement.  For example, housing-based services could help address gaps between formal medical care and community health to help older residents to age in their communities. More broadly, CDOs’ long-standing relationships with local communities provide a strong base to support cross-sector partnerships to tackle health inequities.

Alina Schnake-Mahl is a doctoral student in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  She was a 2016 recipient of the The Edward M. Gramlich Fellowship in Communityand Economic Development, which is co-sponsored by the Joint Center and NeighborWorks®America.

*The full article is under consideration in Cities & Health; the journal is available online. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Four Challenges to Aging in Place

by Jennifer Molinsky
Senior Research Associate
Within 20 years, one in five Americans—almost 80 million people—will be older than 65 and, surveys indicate, they will want to remain in the current homes for as long as possible. However, the country currently lacks the accessible housing units and supportive social services needed to accommodate these desires.

Four challenges are particularly noteworthy, according to Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Older Population, a recent Joint Center report which also projected that the share of households headed by someone over 65 will grow from 29.9 million today to 50 million in 2035. In particular:
  • Most U.S. homes are not accessible for older people with limited mobility
  • Many older Americans living at home will need long-term care, which is expensive
  • Millions of older adults cannot afford their current housing units
  • Older adults who live at home are often isolated

Challenge #1: Making Housing Accessible


A growing older population will mean greater numbers of households that include someone with a disability (Figure 1). Indeed, the Joint Center projects that by 2035, 17 million older households will include at least one person with a mobility disability for whom stairs, traditional bathroom layouts, and narrow doors and corridors may pose challenges, a 77 percent increase from today. Yet only 3.5 percent of US housing units offer a zero-step entrance into the home, single-floor living, and wide doorways and hallways that accommodate someone in a wheelchair.

 Click to enlarge
Notes: Mobility disability is defined as difficulty walking, getting in and out of bed, and climbing one flight of stairs; self-care disability as difficulty eating, dressing, toileting, and bathing; and household activity disability as difficulty with meal preparation, food shopping, using the telephone, taking medication, money management, housework, and driving.
Source: JCHS tabulations of University of Michigan, 2014 Health and Retirement Survey.


The costs of improving safety and accessibility range from free (e.g. removing throw rugs) to costly (e.g. a new addition to enable single-floor living). Preparing ahead, at a time when the no one in the household has limited mobility disabilities, can help lower the financial and emotional cost of these changes—for example, during a bathroom remodel, adding reinforced walls can make the later addition of grab bars much simpler, while choosing a walk-in shower can eliminate the need to add one later. For some, merely identifying modification needs and finding a contractor or handyman to make changes can be daunting. Consequently, resources that can connect people to trustworthy sources to assess the home and find capable workers will be an important part of any efforts to support aging in place.

However, a sizeable share of homeowners will need financial assistance to make these changes. Today nearly 10 percent of all older homeowner households have less than $50,000 in total assets including the value of their homes. (Excluding the value of the home, 39 percent have less than $50,000.) Going forward, trends in income, wealth, and debt suggest that older adults may have even fewer assets in the future. Helping older adults with limited means finance modifications through tax credits, low- or no-interest loans, grants, or expanded Medicaid waivers for needed modifications will be important.

Renters, particularly those living in older, less accessible units, may be in more difficult straits. Even though federal law generally requires that landlords allow tenants with disabilities to make necessary changes to their units, renters—whose median wealth is only $6,000—typically must do so at their own expense. Furthermore, landlords may require the modifications be removed at renters’ expense upon leaving.

Challenge #2: Providing Long-Term Care 

The Joint Center projects that the number of older adult households in which at least one person has a self-care disability will reach 12 million by 2035; many of these households will require daily assistance with personal care if they are to stay in their homes. (This is consistent with an often-cited 2005 study by Peter Kemper, Harriet L. Komisar and Lisa Alecxih estimating that nearly 70 percent of adults who reach the age of 65 will need some form of long-term care later in life.) Indeed, this type of care is increasingly being offered in people’s homes. Nursing home usage has declined in the past two decades, a trend likely to continue as health and housing partners build partnerships to deliver care at lower cost to private residences. In addition to assistance with personal care, by 2035, we project that 27 million older Americans will need help with other household tasks such as shopping, housework, or paying bills.

Yet long-term care currently is expensive. The median monthly cost for a home health aide working five days per week is $3,813. The typical older renter could afford just two months of these services before exhausting their savings. While the median older homeowner is better situated, many have limited resources—and as noted above may need these to make modifications to their homes.

Today most assistance is provided by family members, including spouses, at least in part because of high costs. However, in the future fewer family members will be available to the next generation of older adults, because the number of households with few or no children, as well as single-person households, will rise. For individuals, factoring in the potential costs of paying for in-home support and care is an important part of planning for aging in place, but policy has a role as well in encouraging innovation of cost-effective care delivery in the home.

Challenge #3: Ensuring that Housing is Affordable 

Affordability is and is likely to remain a significant obstacle to aging in place. In 2014, 31 percent of older households were cost-burdened (i.e. they spent more than 30 of their income on housing). Holding cost-burdened shares by age, race/ethnicity, and tenure constant, the Joint Center projects that by 2035, 17.1 million older households will be housing cost-burdened, and 8.5 million of these households will be spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Given lower incomes, older renters are more likely to be cost-burdened. However, with a homeownership rate approaching 80 percent for older households, owners are more numerous and make up the majority of cost-burdened older households. In particular, owners who carry mortgages into older ages—a trend that has increased over the past 20 years—are at higher risk of experiencing unaffordable housing costs. Households that are housing cost-burdened typically cope by cutting back on other necessities, such as food, healthcare, or transportation. These tradeoffs put older adults’ health at risk and limit their opportunities to engage in their communities and access needed services.

For homeowners, the challenge of high housing costs might be met with prudent and early financial planning, reverse mortgages or refinancing, relief from property taxes, or help increasing home energy efficiency and lowering utility costs. Renters have fewer options, as rental subsidies are in short supply. By 2035 the Joint Center projects that the number of older adults eligible for rental housing subsidies will grow to 7.6 million from just under 4 million today. Currently the nation provides subsidies to only about one-third of those eligible; simply maintaining this level for seniors in 2035 would require providing subsidies to an additional 1.3 million households, which would more than double the number of older people who are being assisted today.

Challenge #4: Reducing Isolation

Ensuring older households are able to connect with their neighbors and access services in their communities and beyond is as critical to aging in place as preparing one’s home and finances. One can be isolated anywhere, even in a city if streets are perceived as unsafe, or if friends or needed services are not nearby. There are, however, ways to capitalize on a localized population of older adults to deliver services, through organizations like “villages” or those that serve naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), such as large apartment complexes that are home to significant numbers of older people.

Isolation is a particular concern for those aging in low-density and rural locales. The new study found that that just under half of older households are located in areas of metro regions with less than one housing unit per acre, or outside metro regions entirely (Figure 2). When older adults curtail or give up driving—a share that exceeds 50 percent for those in their mid-80s and above—people living in these locations can be particularly isolated.

 Click to enlarge
Notes: Areas are defined as census tracts. High-density metro areas have at least 2028 housing units per square mile; medium-density metro areas have between 644 and 2028 housing units per square mile; and low-density metro areas have less than 644 housing units per square mile. Connected and isolated non-metro areas are defined using USDA Rural-Urban Commuting Area codes.
Source: JCHS tabulations of 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates and USDA Rural-Urban Commuting Area codes.


Alternative transportation, such as paratransit or car-share services, as well as technology that enables virtual medical appointments and social interaction, will be key. But individuals in these lower density areas, and the organizations and governments that serve them, will need to consider how to expand programs to ensure older adults can access services and remain engaged in their communities.

Moving Forward

These challenges do not mean that aging in place is an impractical or an unworthy goal, but rather that there is much planning to be done at both the individual and societal level. Educating households about the financial and physical challenges they might face if they remain in their current home and the options available to address them is an important first step. So is ensuring that local governments understand and plan for the challenges their older residents will likely face.

For some, though, alternatives to a current residence may prove to offer a higher quality of life. Therefore, we also need to create new housing options that offer accessibility features, are located near to shopping and services (or in a multifamily building that provides services), offer flexible space (perhaps including space that can be occupied by caregivers if needed), and are aimed at a people with range of incomes, including low-income renters. Developing housing with these features in the centers or downtowns of small towns and suburbs where older adults already live can provide alternatives that allow longtime residents to maintain ties to their communities. Since one in three US households will be headed by an older adult within 20 years (up from one in five today), we need to start taking these and other steps as soon as possible.

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Jennifer Molinsky will be a panelist at our March 6 event Housing and Policy in an Aging America. This event will be free and open to the public.