The Way Forward: A Developer’s Vision for Affordable Seniors Housing

by Jeff Shaw

By Joy Silver

The scarcity of affordable housing is already a prominent crisis in communities across the United States, and it is even more acute and pronounced for seniors — a population that often finds themselves overlooked and underserved. How did we get here and what’s the best way to bring solutions to the table?

Demographic shifts and “the 2030 problem”

The demographic landscape of the United States is undergoing a significant shift, with baby boomers constituting the nation’s fastest-growing subpopulation. By 2030, every single baby boomer will be 65 or older, leading to an intensified strain on existing resources and infrastructure. That’s just six years from now.

This impending phenomenon, termed over 20 years ago by researchers as “the 2030 problem,” underscores the urgency that’s needed to address the unique needs of this population as they begin the next chapter of their lives, particularly the need for affordable housing as they continue to face ever-present economic challenges.

A change of plans (and economy)

A critical element of the seniors housing crisis is rooted in retirement planning or, in some cases, lack thereof. 

Many boomers, particularly those born in the latter half of the generation, have found themselves inadequately prepared for their post-retirement years. A 2019 study from the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI) found that 45 percent of retiring baby boomers have no retirement savings, and 28 percent have less than $100,000 saved.

Even those who did diligently plan have found themselves coming up short as they navigate a financial landscape that is much more expensive than they could have ever anticipated. 

Compounding this issue is the fact that baby boomers are living longer than previous generations. While normally a positive aspect, this means that more people are finding themselves grappling with the financial implications of an extended post-retirement life, which includes increased healthcare costs, costs of living and other unforeseen expenses.

Another study conducted by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that “late boomers” — those born between 1960 and 1965 — had 19 percent less retirement wealth than “early boomers” born from 1948 to 1953 by the time they had reached their 50s. This is directly attributed to global economic downturns like the 2008 crisis, which dealt a particularly harsh blow to this generation and resulted in the loss of homes, jobs, investments and retirement funds. 

Over a decade later, the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the global economy, further stretching fixed incomes to their limits and once again jeopardizing the financial stability of those who had managed to regain momentum after the previous financial crisis.

With these challenges abounding, the question on many minds remains whether these individuals would ever be able to truly regain their financial footing. Regardless of their ability to rebound, developers and legislators alike have an obligation to ensure that support systems and safety nets are firmly in place for seniors facing financial hardships.

Community collaboration and systemic change

All of these factors play a role in what seniors housing will look like moving forward. 

Developers need to reimagine seniors housing complexes, incorporating strategic elements and partnerships to address the unique challenges faced by this demographic while also fostering a robust continuum of care. This includes integrating supportive services within communities to ensure accessibility and embracing age-in-place concepts. 

These kinds of support systems must be prioritized in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) especially, where many older people settle post-career.

Imagine, for instance, the transformative impact of situating affordable housing for seniors adjacent to already existing affordable housing communities. In one of CHOC’s affordable housing communities in Perris, California, we witnessed firsthand the struggles of our senior residents as they made daily compromises between accessing necessary services and remaining in affordable housing. 

Witnessing these compromises in real-time illuminated the necessity for accessible alternatives. The notion of transitioning seniors to nearby affordable housing designed specifically for their needs presents a viable solution, providing living conditions for seniors but also opening up opportunities for families that work for seniors as well. As a result, supportive services and activities are in essence ‘built in’ to the community simply because families can live nearby.

A shining example of a supportive services housing model in action is 400 miles north at the Shores Landing project in San Mateo, California. The city’s board of supervisors purchased the former Redwood City Marriott TownPlace Suites Hotel location in 2020, renovating it into a 95-unit permanent supportive housing site for extremely low-income seniors. This project offers residents a full suite of supportive services, including case management, housing stability support, individual service plans, community-based referrals, health education, wellness programming, life skills development and lease compliance services.

There are many opportunities to more effectively serve senior populations in this regard and CHOC remains committed to working with community organizations to strategize opportunities to bring these essential resources online quickly. Though we do much work at the community and developer levels, driving meaningful change in addressing the affordable housing crisis happens at the systems level. 

Policymakers must incentivize developers to invest in affordable seniors housing. This involves reevaluating funding structures, creating favorable zoning regulations and offering incentives that encourage developers to view affordable seniors housing as not just a societal need but a financially lucrative and socially responsible investment.

Furthermore, on the policy front, securing federal funding is not only necessary, but pivotal for the success of comprehensive solutions. Recognizing the significance of inclusive income mixes, accommodating a range of area median income percentages up to 120 percent, is essential for catering to the diverse demographics within our communities. This approach ensures that affordable seniors housing initiatives address the unique financial circumstances of a broad spectrum of individuals, fostering an environment where everyone, regardless of economic background, can find a secure and supportive home in their later years.

Moving forward, addressing the shortage of affordable seniors housing requires a multifaceted and comprehensive approach that needs to start now. Federal funding, innovative housing models, and thoughtful consideration of zoning and developer incentives are crucial components of the solution. 

As we navigate the complexities of this challenge, it is incumbent upon policymakers and stakeholders to collaborate and implement decisive actions. By embracing a holistic perspective, we can pave the way for a future where affordable seniors housing is not a scarcity, but a cornerstone of our communities. 

For over 40 years, Joy Silver has served as an advocate for the underserved who face challenges in both healthcare and housing. In addition to serving as a housing and aging issues consultant, she is also active in bringing change through public policy. Based in Palm Springs, California, she currently serves as the chief strategy officer for the Community Housing Opportunities Corp. (CHOC), a nonprofit affordable housing developer.

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