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What’s Behind the Housing Crisis for Older Americans?

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What’s Behind the Housing Crisis for Older Americans?

Older adults are struggling to keep a place to live. While politicians battle over the best solution, the underlying cause is not that complicated.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Calamity can strike in an instant. In early 2023, a car slammed into the rear of Michael Genaldi’s motorcycle, crushing three of his ribs and leaving him in a coma for over a month. This was the beginning of his road to homelessness.

The 58-year-old lost his job as a machine operator, then his home, and he was living in his truck when he was diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer. Too young to get Social Security, Mr. Genaldi began living temporarily in a shelter for people 55 and older in Phoenix, Arizona, while he navigated the process of qualifying for disability payments.

His story illustrates a sad truth: When an older American falls on hard times, there is often no one there to support them, and no adequate system to help them get back on their feet.

The nation is rapidly aging and ill-prepared to adequately house and care for the growing number of older people, according to a recent report released by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The data found that a record-high 22.4 million renter households—or half of renters nationwide—were spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent in 2022. The number of affordable units—with rents under $600—also dropped to 7.2 million that year, 2.1 million fewer than a decade earlier.

These conditions are difficult for people of all ages but uniquely impact those later in life. Without enough government help, “many older adults will have to forgo needed care or rely on family and friends for assistance,” warned Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the center’s Housing and Aging Society Program. Thankfully, some older Americans do have friends and family who can step in to take care of them. But others, as with Mr. Genaldi, become homeless.

Ms. Molinsky said more governmental assistance could better help the upsurge of older Americans who are baby boomers born after World War II.

The Harvard report stated that in 2021, federal housing assistance like Section 8 or Section 202—which provides housing with supportive services such as cleaning, cooking and transportation for older people—was only sufficient for a little more than a third of the 5.9 million renters ages 62 and over who were eligible. And despite positive signs from other economic indicators, many continue to feel the pinch of inflation and cost of living.

Over the next decade, the U.S. population over the age of 75 will increase by 45 percent, growing from 17 million to nearly 25 million. And many of those people are expected to struggle financially. The report notes that in 2021, nearly 11.2 million older adults were “cost burdened,” which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

This data begs tough questions: Why is America so unprepared to care for its elderly? Can the crisis be attributed to simply a lack of government solutions? Or can it be explained at a much more fundamental level?

Scarce Options

As people reach old age, they often want to retire and enjoy a slower pace of life. These adults may also wish to live closer to their extended family or spend time in a warmer climate. Yet the cost and availability of housing, whether renting or buying, is increasingly prohibitive for older Americans to find housing in many places, let alone their top choice.

Some of the highest cost-burden rates for renters 65 and older were in Sunbelt areas traditionally popular for retirement: Las Vegas, San Diego, Raleigh, North Carolina, Miami and Daytona Beach, Florida.

For homeowners, the Harvard report stated that mortgage debt among older adults is rising, with the median mortgage debt for homeowners 65 to 79 shooting up over 400 percent from $21,000 in 1989 to $110,000 in 2022 as people increasingly need to access cash for basic needs and care.

Even if a senior does find housing, it may be in poor condition. A 2023 Bloomberg article titled “The Other Housing Crisis: Too Many Sick, Aging Homes” examined the impact of the poor condition of homes in America.

It stated: “With fewer discretionary funds, low-income homeowners often struggle to keep their properties up. In St. Louis, for example, the average bill for repairs among older homeowners…was more than $13,000, according to Todd Swanstrom, a public policy professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis…”

“Low-income renters have it even worse,” the article continued. “Older mom-and-pop landlords often don’t have the appetite or the budget to invest in upgrades. If a private landlord does pay, the split-incentive problem comes into play; improved housing means higher rents and threats of displacement. That’s why most weatherization and upgrade programs have strict affordability requirements.”

Another factor impacting the ability of older adults to find housing is their other financial burdens. Many need additional services as they age. The costs of long-term care average over $100 a day. And older people who live alone are more likely to be cost-burdened than married or partnered couples: 47 percent versus 21 percent of couples.

In Phoenix, Angelita Saldana, 56, became homeless after her marriage fell apart. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Ms. Saldana initially lived in her truck with her pet dog, Gaspar, but they now live at the same 60-bed shelter where Mr. Genaldi stays with his pet dog, Chico.

Ms. Saldana said her $941 monthly disability check is not enough to pay for even a studio apartment in the area, where average rents start at around $1,200. A caseworker is trying to help her find something she can afford. In the meantime, she has a motel room to herself with a private bathroom.

“Here, I can sleep good,” she said, unlike the months she spent at the state’s largest shelter in downtown Phoenix, which has 10 times as many beds.

Lisa Glow, the CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services, which operates both facilities, said older people do much better in a shelter designed with their needs in mind—including more space, limited stairs and wider doorways for wheelchairs.

Ms. Glow spoke of an 82-year-old man with dementia who struggled to sleep on a bunk bed at the downtown shelter before he was transferred. Staff members tracked down his family and got him transferred to a skilled nursing facility for more personalized care.

“The downtown shelter is not a good place for an aging adult with chronic conditions,” said Ms. Glow. “We see a lot of people there in their 70s and 80s.”

“I’ve been shocked to see so many seniors on the street,” she added. “People with wheelchairs. People with walkers.”

Grasping for Progress

Congress is working on a bill to expand a federal program that awards tax credits to housing developers who agree to set aside units for low-income tenants. Supporters say that could lead to the construction of 200,000 more affordable homes. Some lawmakers are also calling for more rental assistance, including a significant increase in funding for housing vouchers.

“A larger commitment from the federal government is required,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Harvard center. “Only then will the nation finally make a meaningful dent in the housing affordability crisis making life so difficult for millions of people.”

At the state level, Colorado lawmakers have proposed a bill to limit the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant. Other bills would scrap the filing fee for tenants in an eviction case and roll back local rules prohibiting homeowners from renting out a separate unit on their property.

“If we don’t act now,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in his recent State of the State speech, largely focused on housing, “we will soon face a spiraling point of no return.”

Other states are also grappling with the problem.

In Washington state, a bill would require 10 percent of new housing around transit hubs to be affordable for low-income residents. Another would bar landlords from increasing rent by more than 5 percent annually during a rental agreement term.

In Massachusetts, a bill would invest over $4 billion toward building and shoring up affordable housing in response to the state’s estimate that more than 200,000 additional homes will be needed by 2030. It would be the largest housing investment in state history.

Time will tell whether such initiatives can be successfully implemented and to what degree they help seniors.

Long-Term Trend

If America does not act, the crisis will only worsen over time. This was powerfully illustrated by a 2018 report from the U.S. Census Bureau titled “The Graying of America: More Older Adults Than Kids by 2035.”

The report states: “In less than two decades, the graying of America will be inescapable: Older adults are projected to outnumber kids for the first time in U.S. history. Already, the middle-aged outnumber children, but the country will reach a new milestone in 2034.”

“This demographic transformation caused by a rapidly aging population is new for the United States but not for other countries…America has been different, until now.

It continued: “Higher fertility and more international migration have helped stave off an aging population and the country has remained younger as a result. But those trends are changing. Americans are having fewer children and the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s has yet to be repeated. Fewer babies, coupled with longer life expectancy equals a country that ages faster.”

People are already calling the lack of housing a crisis today. How bad will things be in 2034?

Creative ideas are especially needed now to house people with fixed or dwindling incomes and with insufficient savings, the Harvard report said. These could include house or apartment sharing to cut back on costs rather than living alone, accessory dwelling units or ADUs known as casitas, granny flats and in-law units. There are also cohousing communities where individual homes—sometimes even tiny homes—are arranged around a building with a communal space such as a dining room.

But if trends hold, more older adults will be out on the streets. While efforts are being made to address issues surrounding rent and housing in a general way, most are silent about the problem’s impacts on the elderly.

Many Americans are simply unaware of the challenges facing older adults. They may recognize that prices are high in supermarkets and that homelessness is a problem, but the average person has likely never seen the data highlighted in the Harvard report.

Older people do not seem to be a major priority for politicians. Look at the 2024 presidential race. Is the issue of taking care of the elderly a focus of the campaign? Even though the two frontrunners are themselves senior citizens, very little is said about how to address housing for that demographic. What about mainstream news? Are they casting a spotlight on the issue? The obvious answers help point to the foundation of the problem.

The Value of the Elderly

Decades ago, older people were afforded more honor and respect. Now, the aged among us are increasingly treated with apathy. We can observe this in the general lack of urgency and solutions to their housing crisis, but also in other areas.

The foundational problem facing older Americans is not really about housing. At its core, the problem has much more to do with respect.

Think of children who send their aging parents to assisted living homes to receive subpar or poor care and then forget about them. Consider that one in 10 elderly Americans will experience at least one form of elder abuse each year, and statistics show their abusers are most often members of their own family. Also think of the many forms of financial abuse older people suffer—identity theft, telemarketing scams, phishing scams, abuse of power of attorney, and more. According to the Nursing Home Abuse Center, seniors lose at least $2.6 billion annually to financial abuse.

Why do so few speak out about these issues?

As society drifts further from God, the Bible book of II Timothy illustrates the natural result: “Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (3:2-4).

Many of these character traits help explain why the elderly are not a priority for most. The more a person loves his or her own self, the harder it is to show love and respect for others—especially those with whom you do not have much in common.

If one is disobedient to their parents, they will not care for them in old age. A lack of affection is a major roadblock for a person to show compassion for someone less fortunate.

Think: If the public embraced a mindset of venerating older citizens, it would be very difficult to see people on the streets with wheelchairs and walkers. Support and intervention on a local level and progress in federal legislative solutions would naturally flow from widespread love and respect for older generations.

How God describes Himself is another indicator of how the elderly should be treated. Daniel 7 refers to Him as the “Ancient of Days” (vs. 9, 13, 22). Throughout Scripture, we find proof that God has always existed: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God…For a thousand years in Your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night” (Psa. 90:2, 4).

Put another way, these verses show that God is old.

This knowledge prepares us to examine other verses detailing how precious elderly people are to God. Leviticus commands, “You shall rise up [stand] before the hoary [white] head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear your God: I am the Lord” (19:32).

God intended younger generations to seek advice and guidance from the older and reap the benefits. Job 12:12-13 says, “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding. With him is wisdom and strength, he has counsel and understanding.”

A wholesale shift in mindset toward the elderly is unlikely today. However, if you read and believe these verses, you can decide to begin showing more concern for the elderly in your own life, whether family members or those in your local community. As the saying goes, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Understanding the chasm between the biblical view of the elderly and the view of most today can feel discouraging. But the Bible also gives us hope for a fantastic future for older people.

God promises: “Even to your old age, I am He, and even to gray hairs I will carry you! I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you” (Isa. 46:4, New King James Version).

In His coming Kingdom, God “will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth; and the mountain of the Lord of hosts the holy mountain…There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age” (Zec. 8:3-4).

Although things look bleak now, take comfort in these guarantees in God’s Word. A time is coming when all older people will be provided for, and everyone will respect and cherish them.

This article contains information from The Associated Press.

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