Ecocity Snapshots

Seniors and the Housing Crisis

Los Angeles converted this historic landmark into an affordable senior complex as part of its redevelopment strategy for Hollywood.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

For decades, experts have urged older Americans to move into shared-housing arrangements and senior housing developments for safety, health, companionship, quality of life, and reduced household expenses. The current housing crisis adds another good reason to improve the options available to seniors and empty nesters and consequently make better use of the single-family homes that we already have.

Most Baby Boomers want to stay in their single-family homes. According to a study from Redfin, almost 80 percent of older Americans are either aging in place or planning to age in place. Importantly, the “place” in question is often a single-family detached home. This preference is partly an assumption that it is cheaper to live in their mortgage-free house despite the extra cost of home maintenance, property tax, and the expense of owning/fueling/insuring/repairing the car(s) needed to access everyday destinations in typical suburban neighborhoods. But regardless of why they choose to age in place, the result is that there are fewer single-family homes available for people of child-rearing age. Almost one third of all 3-plus bedroom homes in the US are owned by empty nesters while only 14 percent are owned by millennials with children.

The shortage and expense of family-size housing is one reason why many young people have decided to delay having children or to forego parenthood altogether.  Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, cites studies showing a correlation between larger homes and higher fertility rates. He acknowledges the difficulty of determining if people have fewer kids because they can’t find bigger dwelling units or whether people have less need of bigger dwelling units because they want fewer kids. However, he notes that some studies indicate that a shortage of larger dwellings causes actual birth rates to be significantly lower than the birth rates desired by couples.

Governments are pressured to increase the supply of single-family detached homes, often by approving subdivisions on farmland, natural areas, and other greenfield sites. But does it make sense to accommodate the demand for single-family detached homes by doubling down on suburban sprawl? That 20th Century thinking is a major cause of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and land-wasting land use patterns that require extensive roadway networks and infrastructure systems that are expensive to build and maintain. Wouldn’t it make more sense to make shared housing and senior complexes so attractive and affordable that empty nesters are motivated to sell their existing single-family detached homes to young couples who need a family-sized house? 

Home sharing is one of several potential solutions. Home sharing programs help match individuals who want to share a house or apartment. In the future, an increasing number of seniors will experience severe rent burdens, meaning housing expenses that account for more than half of household income. Home sharing allows seniors to reduce housing costs while offering the companionship essential to mental/physical health and wellbeing. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development also finds home sharing to be an increasingly important way to more efficiently use our existing housing stock.   

Governments are, perhaps unwittingly, motivating empty nesters to stay in their single-family detached homes by failing to prioritize senior housing developments according to the Redfin study. If so, these governments are also missing a golden opportunity to revitalize commercial centers now reeling from the rise of online shopping, the shift to remote work, and the impact of fewer shoppers and workers on downtown restaurants and stores.

Fortunately, many seniors want to trade in their car-dependent existence in the suburbs for walkable communities. In many downtowns, seniors would be closer to entertainment, cultural venues, and activity centers as well as healthcare and everyday destinations. In addition to improving the lives of older people, senior developments can be an important part of redeveloping our now-struggling commercial centers as recommended by reports from the American Planning Association.      

Finally, demographers foresee continuing reductions in birthrates and total population decline even in the United States under scenarios that assume low rates of immigration.  As I wrote in a 2023 post for Ecocities Emerging, two-thirds of the world’s population already live in places with fertility rates lower than the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. According to the US Census Bureau, if the United States adopts strict limits on immigration, total population could begin to drop as early as 2043. Even under the expected scenario, which assumes reasonable rates of immigration, the Census Bureau projects population to peak at 370 million in 2080 and decline to 366 million by 2100.

It may seem crazy to worry about building too much single-family detached residential during the middle of a housing crisis. But it seems even crazier not to provide desirable and affordable senior housing options, particularly if these actions help reduce further conversion of farms and natural areas to single-family, detached subdivisions.  

Notes

Burayidi, M. 2018. Downtown Revitalization in Small and Midsized Cities. PAS Report 590. Chicago: American Planning Association.

Friedrick, J. 2024. Baby boomers prolonging housing shortage by aging in place. Bridge Towers Media Newswires. Accessed at Baby boomers prolonging housing shortage by aging in place | Finance & Commerce (finance-commerce.com).  

Pruetz, R. 2023. Population Bomb and Bust. Accessed at Population Bomb and Bust – Ecocities Emerging.

Stone, L. 2018. Higher Rent, Fewer Babies? Housing Costs and Fertility Decline.  Accessed at Higher Rent, Fewer Babies? Housing Costs and Fertility Decline | Institute for Family Studies (ifstudies.org)

U.S. Census Bureau. 2023. U.S. Population Projected to Begin Declining in Second Half of Century. Accessed at U.S. Population Projected to Begin Declining in Second Half of Century (census.gov).

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Home Sharing. Accessed at  Home Sharing | HUD USER.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.

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