Joint Center for Housing Studies Fall Research Round-Up Highlights Older Adult Issues (Guest Blog Post)

The following is a guest blog post by Jennifer Molinsky, Senior Research Associate, Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University

In 2020, the pandemic, a powerful movement for social justice, and another year of devastating natural disasters have all focused attention on how housing quality, location, and affordability matter to wellbeing. This fall, the Joint Center for Housing Studies released several reports exploring various aspects of the nation’s housing challenges and their relationship to older adults’ welfare.

This year’s State of the Nation’s Housing report highlights persistent racial disparities in homeownership, a rental affordability crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, worsening impacts of climate change, and a fraying housing safety net. Older households—which are growing faster than all other age groups and now represent 26 percent of all US households—are not immune from these trends. In fact, as of 2019, a record 10.2 million older adults were housing cost-burdened, paying more than a third of their income for housing. Over 5 million were severely burdened, paying more than half their income for housing. Cost-burden rates were higher for older renters, owners with mortgages, and households headed by someone 80 or over. The pandemic’s economic fallout is now taking a toll: while older adults are less likely than other age groups to have lost employment income since businesses began scaling back operations in March, still 22 percent of older households had reported lost income as of late September, and over 5 percent were behind on mortgage or rent payments at that point. Other findings from the State of the Nation’s Housing related to older adults can be found in the report and in a summary blog post.

During the pandemic, many older adults have experienced challenges obtaining food and medication, interruptions in needed supports and services, and loneliness. Many of those living in publicly subsidized housing have benefited from the innovative work service coordinators are doing to meet older residents’ needs, as described in another new report released this fall: For Older Adults in Publicly Funded Housing During the Pandemic, Service Coordinators Help Build Resilience. The report presents the results of a survey conducted in June and July exploring how service coordinators had adapted their work to support residents during the early months of COVID-19. Residents’ limited access to technology (including internet as well as devices) and technological literacy created challenges, particularly amid a new movement toward telemedicine. In response, service coordinators reprioritized their work to assist residents in applying for benefits, attend virtual medical appointments, and teach residents how to use various platforms. They also developed a host of low-tech solutions to support community life and combat loneliness. In addition to addressing the digital divide, service coordinators identified a need for greater mental health support for residents. Greater funding to place service coordinators in all eligible housing is also needed.

Finally, a third report released this fall explores supportive, livable communities on a larger scale. Which Older Adults Have Access to America’s Most Livable Neighborhoods?, a report co-written with colleagues at AARP’s Public Policy Institute, analyzes the livability of the nation’s neighborhoods using the AARP Livability Index. The report finds that access to neighborhoods scoring highly on the Index is not evenly distributed, nor is access to specific features of livability such as affordable and accessible housing, robust transportation systems, neighborhood amenities, a healthy environment, access to healthcare, opportunities for civic and social involvement, and economic opportunity. For example, while renters are overall more prevalent in highly livable neighborhoods, they are underrepresented in places with high scores for health. Neighborhoods with high scores for housing, amenities, and transportation have higher shares of renters and Hispanic and Black older adults, but places with higher scores for opportunity, engagement, and environment have higher shares of homeowners and white older adults. The report and Index offer tools for assessing how well communities are meeting the needs of all community members.

Please stay tuned for new research in 2021 and check out existing reports on the Center’s website and our homepage for research on housing and aging. Happy New Year!