Time to Focus on the Senior Housing Crisis

By Sam Kunjukunju

As America continues to respond to the coronavirus crisis, another more silent one is transpiring across the nation—a senior housing crisis. Much of the country’s available housing is neither accessible nor affordable for many older adults. And with projected demographic changes, the situation is bound to get worse.

Please join the ABA Foundation June 8 at 3 p.m. for a one-hour webinar entitled “Banks, Seniors and Housing: The Challenge and the Opportunity,” featuring speakers from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Northrim Bank. The webinar will explore housing challenges seniors face and examine unique bank partnerships that support some of the nation’s most at-risk populations. Register here.

Adults 65 and older represent 16 percent of the nation’s population, but that number will significantly increase over the next decade, according to Census Bureau data. By 2035, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that one-third of all American households will be headed by a senior. While the demographic transition is due to advances in public health and medical science, America’s housing industry has not similarly progressed to meet the needs of our aging population.

A fundamental challenge older adults face is that the majority of America’s housing stock was seemingly designed for the young and healthy. Millions of Americans live in single-family, multi-story homes with numerous steps and upper-level bedrooms. For the elderly, 40 percent of whom have at least one type of disability, these homes are not always accessible or safe. Senior advocates recommend applying universal design principles, a term first described by the architect Ronald Mace to encourage environments that are “usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” The premise is to create functional homes for everyone, including those with physical and cognitive impairments, in every stage of life.

Advocates urge zero-step entries, single-floor living, accessible switches and outlets for people of any height, 36-inch-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles to ensure easy movement. These five elements, which the ABA Foundation highlights through online tips to help seniors age in place, are vital for the elderly, who are more prone to suffer fall-related injuries than younger demographics. Sadly, every 19 minutes an older adult dies from a fall. But falls, 55 percent of which happen at home, are often preventable and home design plays a tremendous role in contributing to prevention or injury. While universal design features reduce the risk of falls and promote independence, only one in 100 American homes incorporates all five housing elements, according to AARP.

Beyond accessibility, affordability is equally important. Currently, 10 million elderly households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. By 2035, Harvard’s JCHS projects that number will grow to 17.1 million. Renters are more likely than homeowners to be financially challenged, as more than half of older adult renters already spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

These factors are also opportunities for banks to address local senior housing needs. First Northern Bank in California recognized the dearth of affordable housing in their community and collaborated with non-profit partners to develop Heritage Commons, a senior affordable housing campus in Dixon, California. First Northern secured nearly $3.5 million in grants through the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Program and helped create a housing community for 125 seniors. Other banks, such as the American Savings Bank in Hawaii, have used the federal low-income housing tax credit to support senior housing. ASB served as the primary local investor, contributing $14.1 million in developing Rice Camp—nearly 100 units to help seniors live affordably and independently on the island of Kauai.

As the nation begins to recover from the pandemic, housing will be a top priority for people, particularly vulnerable groups such as older Americans. By investing in accessible and affordable housing, banks can support their older neighbors and help develop thriving communities.

Sam Kunjukunju is director of banker community engagement at the ABA Foundation.