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As seniors struggle with housing costs, a study warns it will get worse as U.S. ages

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A record number of seniors are struggling with the cost of housing. It's going to get worse as the baby boomer generation starts to turn 80 in a few years. That's a warning in a new report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, which NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been reading. Jennifer, good morning.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: What's happening?

LUDDEN: Well, you know, the U.S. has been aging rapidly for a bit now. And this new Harvard report out today lays out how unprepared the country is as this really ramps up over the next decade. So the sheer number of people in their 80s is going to be huge. And Jennifer Molinsky, the report's lead author, says it's going to be a real shift.

JENNIFER MOLINSKY: Those are years when the need for services increase. And at the same time, more and more people struggle with housing affordability.

LUDDEN: Now, she means more people in their 80s have medical problems. That can be costly. But of course, you know, they're probably not working, so their income is either fixed or going down. Right now, the report finds only 14% of older adults living alone could afford a daily visit from a home health aide.

INSKEEP: Wow.

LUDDEN: It finds only 13% could move into assisted living without dipping into their assets. And, you know, we know housing is a major burden. I mean, millions of seniors spend a third or even half of their income on housing.

INSKEEP: Oh, which would leave very little room for these changes you may need to make in the latter years of your life.

LUDDEN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: So why is housing costing seniors that much?

LUDDEN: Well, OK, it mentioned - the report mentions a couple of things. For one, more seniors are having to rent in this generation. And, you know, we do know there is a massive shortage of affordable housing, and it's led to sky high rents for everybody right now. Also, there has been a real rise in older people with mortgage debt. It could be they're unable to pay off their home. Or maybe, you know, they took out another loan because it's a sign they're struggling financially.

INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah. What does it mean for older people if they've got that mortgage debt or they've got a rent to pay and things are going up even as they're on a fixed income?

LUDDEN: I spoke with Leslie McIntyre (ph). She lives here in Washington, D.C. Her medical problems actually hit earlier - she had a bad car accident. She'd been doing well. She was a tax accountant, she had savings and a rent-controlled apartment, and she held on there for quite a while. But she finally had to go on disability and then wait three years to get into a senior housing place where she is now.

LESLIE MCINTYRE: And by the time I got in here, I was seriously considering going into a shelter. I paid my rent, my utilities, I had SNAP benefits for food. And I had $25 left over. And you just can't live on that in the long run.

INSKEEP: Wow.

LUDDEN: And, you know, McIntyre is lucky. Only about a third of seniors who qualify for federal housing subsidies actually get them, because unlike food assistance or Medicaid, housing is not an entitlement program. And I want to mention this other worrying change the report notes about homelessness. It used to be younger people were more likely to be unhoused, but now a greater share of them are people 50 and older. Some have been chronically unhoused, but many are falling into homelessness for the first time. And a survey in California this year found the most common reason was that people cannot afford rent.

INSKEEP: What can seniors do?

LUDDEN: The report calls for all kinds of tweaks and changes in policy. Look, a big one, really for the longer term, is to change zoning laws and allow a lot more apartment buildings that can be more senior friendly. There's so much demand, you know, smaller units, single-floor living, no stairs. It also says we should make it easier for people who need or want to stay put to age in place safely. But I asked Leslie McIntyre, the woman...

INSKEEP: We've got to pick up that point another time, Jennifer, but thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Sure thing.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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