While aging in place is a goal for many older adults, some may not be able to stay in their homes and communities as property prices, taxes and the high costs for renovations cause affordability problems.

Older adult advocates and nonprofit organizations are hunting for solutions across urban and rural areas to combat the lack of affordable and accessible housing options, especially as the aging population grows in the next 10 years.

“People want to age in place, they want to stay in their homes,” Danielle Arigoni, director at AARP Livable Communities, told Home Health Care News. “About three-fourths of the people we have surveyed [for the 2018 Home and Community Preferences: A National Survey of Adults Age 18-Plus] want to stay in their homes, but only about one-half believe they will be able to. There is a gap between what people aspire to be able to do and what they think is feasible.”

The survey finds many adults age 50 and older are willing to consider alternatives such as home sharing, building an accessory dwelling unit and “villages” that provide services that enable aging in place. Villages are grassroots community-based efforts to keep seniors living in their homes.

Livable Communities is an effort to support neighborhoods, town, cities and rural areas to be great places for people of all ages. Three states and more than 300 town and cities have joined the AARP network of age-friendly states and communities. More than 75 million people live in a network community, according to the company.

“I think we are at a tipping point,” Arigoni said. “Sharing the statistics with people about the incredible growth in the older population can really be a call to action … It’s a wake up call for asking the question: ‘Are we creating age friendly communities?’”

Affordability across rural and urban areas

Maine is one example of a specific state that has several factors stacking up against its affordable and accessible housing: the demographics of the state, expensive property taxes, a large number of rural areas and a poor housing stock. In some cases, homes are so old that they’re literally falling down around their homeowners, Lori K. Parham, state director of AARP Maine, told HHCN.

“When I am traveling the state and talking to Mainers, the top issue that comes up is property taxes,” Parham said. “We are seeing people in big old homes, in rural areas that just can’t keep up with costs. We also have a real shortage in affordable housing.”

Of Maine’s older population, 37% have low incomes, or incomes of 80% or less than the area’s median income, according to “A Profile of Maine’s Older Population and Housing Stock,” from Rockville, Maryland-based Apt Associates, a global research firm, released in 2015.

While the issue can be felt in rural areas, urban areas have a similar problem.

“I would guess that most of our [Village] members have a rent controlled apartment or they own their home,” Kate Hoepke, executive director of the San Francisco Village and chair of the leadership team at the Village Movement of California, told HHCN. “If they’ve moved here recently they’re having to deal with astronomical prices, if they’ve been here for awhile they are kind of flying under the radar.”

San Francisco Village was founded in 2009 and includes more than 340 current members, between the ages of 60 to 96 years old, across 25 different neighborhoods. Village Movement of California is a statewide coalition of villages that are banding together to increase visibility, invigorate California villages and build momentum for the movement.

Mulling solutions

One out of three American households will be headed by someone over the age of 65 by 2035. And by that same year, the number of older households with someone that has a disability will increase by 76%, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report “Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015 – 2035”, released in 2016.

Housing design features that increase accessibility or universal design elements such as zero-step entrances, electrical controls that are reachable from a wheelchair, lever-style handles on faucets and doors, single-floor living and wide halls and doorways are viewed as particularly important for older adults to stay in their home, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report.

However, only 1% of the current housing stock in the U.S. offers all five of these features.

Solutions for the accessible housing shortage range from home sharing to better building communities for the future, sources note.

“We are seeing an increased appetite for home sharing,” Arigoni said. “That means opening up your home to roommates or non-family members to share … and we [have seen] growth in the last four years in [the number of people] already or willing to share their homes. I think part of that has to do with the growing popularity of Airbnb and the degree to which the sharing economy has changed the way people look at their home as an asset.”

Other such trends in the space include home modifications with an accessary unit or mother-in-law unit. While this can benefit communities, these kind of modifications can be illegal in some areas.

“Many states and communities recognize that the zoning and building code environment doesn’t encourage that kind of home modification,” Arigoni said. “A lot of communities are examining what is possible in terms of changing policy to facilitate [more home modifications].”

Equally important to changing policy is to inform neighbors of the benefits these units can bring to an area, Arigoni said. There is a perception that these modifications can change the character of a neighborhood and invite new traffic congestion. But telling the story better and explaining why these modifications are happening it makes it more palatable for residents and neighbors, she added.

Local efforts in Maine are also working toward solutions. For example: Bath Housing’s Comfortably Home, a program to offer no-cost home safety checks and accessibility enhancements to low-income seniors and a Maine income tax credit, for individuals who earn $55,000 or less, for modifications to their residence to make it more accessible.

Remodeling for accessibility

While remodeling a home to make it more age friendly can seem like an easy option for some, it can be expensive for others.

“The cost is always contingent on what the existing structure looks like and how much work needs to be done,” Joanne Theunissen, chair of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) remodelers, told HHCN.

If you plan to make these modifications, make sure that you find someone that has aging in place building experience, she added.

“A lot of this can be done in stages — sometimes there are just small things you want to do like add a few grab bars and enlarge a few doorways,” Theunissen said. “But, if things [change] for you … it is a good idea to have a plan in place. What happens with a lot of people is they treat aging in place with a sort of Band-Aid mentality. They go in and they add a ramp, but in two years when they need a deeper dive, they rip out what they did to do new stuff. If you stage it right, you shouldn’t have to do that.”

Washington, D.C.-based NAHB is a trade association that was founded in the 1940s.  It has over 700 state and local members, about one-third are home builders and remodelers. Each year, NAHB members construct about 80% of the new homes built in the U.S.

NAHB offers a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) program for builders. It is a three-part designation program.

There have been some federal efforts to aid in this growing problem.

The Senior Accessible Housing Act was introduced to the House in March 2017 by Rep. Charlie Crist, a democrat from Florida, and was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means, but the bill has not moved from committee since then. The Senior Accessible Housing Act would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow a nonrefundable personal tax credit, up to $30,000, for seniors modifying their homes to enhance their ability to remain living safely and independently.

While the local efforts are helpful and positive, state, nonprofit and federal help is necessary, as local programs cannot keep up with the need for affordable housing, Parham noted. For Maine, specifically, it is more than 10,000 units behind what the state needs to house its seniors, she added.

“I am heartened by efforts by municipalities and volunteers [that are] starting to address this issue at a very local level,” Parham said. “However, we are going to need state leadership on this issue.”

Written by Kaitlyn Mattson