Housing is central to community and individual well-being. The type and location of a home can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life. Livable communities contain a range of accessible, affordable, and safe housing options. This ensures that residents of all backgrounds, incomes, and abilities can find appropriate and affordable housing. It allows people to remain in their communities as their needs change. A large majority of older adults wants to stay in their homes and communities as they age. Some are concerned that they will not be able to do so.
Most communities are designed with one housing type in mind. For example, some suburbs allow just single-family residential homes. In these communities, zoning does not include other housing types, such as duplexes and apartment buildings. This can make it difficult for people with low and moderate incomes to afford to live there. It also provides fewer options for those who may need a different housing type to meet physical needs or preferences. Having a variety of housing options provides greater choices in neighborhoods. Residents have a better chance of finding housing they can afford in a location that meets their needs.
Subsidies can also help expand affordability. This is especially important for older adults who rent. Older renters tend to be more rent-burdened than younger renters. This leaves very little money for other necessities, such as food and health care. People with high housing-cost burdens may be at risk of eviction and displacement if appropriate tenant protection laws are not in place.
Homeownership has historically been an important federal policy goal. It is also the most common way families can build wealth. Unlike renters, homeowners’ monthly housing payments build up equity over time. If homeowners can pay off their mortgages, they significantly reduce their housing costs, particularly in their retirement years. Although housing costs for homeowners can be high, a recent report found that, compared with renters, homeowners paid almost half as much in monthly housing costs. Homeowners are also responsible for paying property taxes, which can be burdensome depending on the area. However, many states offer property tax relief to older homeowners (see also Home Mortgage Lending).
Fair housing is another critical issue. It reflects the need to address longstanding disparities in housing access for certain communities. This includes historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups. Decades of discriminatory practices and policies in housing have negatively affected communities of color. It curtails their ability to attract and generate investment, build intergenerational wealth, and gain access to other amenities and services beneficial to community members, especially as they get older. And many of these issues persist today. For example, African American and Hispanic households have faced segregation and displacement in housing at much higher rates than whites. They are less likely to own their own homes, which is key to building wealth. This not only affects their access to safe and affordable housing but also affects their financial well-being.
Housing design is also significant. Housing features that serve a wide range of needs help people to age in place. As people get older, they are more likely to face mobility and other limitations and disabilities. Housing that is built for everyone, including people with disabilities, allows people to remain in their homes as their needs change. For example, people who use mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs need housing with no steps at the entrance, wide doorways and hallways, and an accessible bathroom at the ground level. These features also work for people who do not have mobility limitations, such as parents with young children using strollers.
Safety is key to ensuring that people can remain in their communities as they get older. All housing needs to be safe. Low-quality housing can pose risks to residents’ health and safety, particularly vulnerable populations such as older adults. Renters may be reluctant to report unsafe features or conditions for fear that they will lose their housing. Homeowners may have trouble making necessary repairs.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn that followed exacerbated housing challenges. That was especially true for people with low incomes and communities of color. These groups often face disparities in access to high-quality health care and education, job opportunities that pay living wages, and affordable and safe housing located near transit options and economic opportunities. The pandemic also has had disproportionate health impacts on older adults. The pandemic underscored the importance of living in a community that supports their housing needs and offers a variety of amenities and services that promote healthy aging.