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Homes for the baby boomers

Joe Nathan Big

It’s the start of a new decade, and, you may have noticed: We’re getting older.

That’s true in the Baltimore region and in most parts of the country. The baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, now consists of those who will be turning 56 this year and ranging up to those in their mid-70’s.

Today, about 1 in 6 Americans are over 65; by 2030, 1 in 5 will be 65 or older. Among the many implications of this inexorable demographic trend is how well will the housing needs of this older population be met.

A news release for a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University issued 5 years ago proclaimed, “U.S. Unprepared to Meet the Housing Needs of Its Aging Population.” It’s not clear that we are doing much better today.

Most homebuilders are not developing houses in a way that accounts for the great changes that have taken place in the nation’s population. Of course, they’ve been building homes that capture their unique market niche. But they are not taking account of the fact that the majority of American households consist of only one or two persons. That’s also the case all across the Baltimore region.

As Americans age, the housing market should be responding to two basic realities of an aging population: the infirmities that older adults must cope with and their changed economic status, often a reduction in income, after retirement.

Of course, for those with the wherewithal, there are the newer options in the form of  continuing care communities or assisted living communities, of which we have several notable examples in this region.  But, for the vast majority of the aging populace, these living arrangements are beyond their means.

Increasing affordability

You would think the reality of smaller households would lead to the design and construction of smaller dwellings. The opposite is true. U.S. Census Bureau figures indicated that in 2015 the average size of new houses built in the nation had increased to an all-time high of just under 2,700 square feet. That represented an increase of more than 1,000 square feet over the average size of 1,660 square feet recorded in 1973, the earliest date available for comparable data.

However, some communities and some developers are showing much creativity in the matter of creating housing options better suited to the smaller space requirements and  reduced incomes of many seniors.

A number of solutions were featured in a publication by AARP and the National Building Museum, MAKING ROOM, Housing for a Changing America. A few of these ideas, applicable to the needs of seniors as well as younger cohorts are listed here.

The tiny house

With the smaller household in mind, designers are coming up with plans requiring much less space. As the AARP/NBM report notes, “The development of personal digital technology, the growth of the sharing economy and an increasing commitment to sustainability are … reducing the amount of space many people need – and want. After all, a smartphone can replace yesterday’s desk, personal computer, bookshelves, CD racks and filing cabinets, making it easier to live in a smaller space.” And, to save money.

While some tiny house communities are in more rural settings, based on the RV model, they can also be found in dense urban areas.

Carmel Place in Manhattan is one such example. Opened in 2016, it contains 55 studio apartments ranging in size from 260 to 360 square feet. The residents share a community room and roof terrace. Other amenities include a fitness center, coffee shop, shared den, laundry room and the building adjoins a public park.

Designs for sharing

Housing entrepreneurs are exploring a number of living arrangements that come under a variety of names: co-living, co-housing, and more.

An example will help. Baumhaus, located in Pittsburgh, is a 127-unit, seven-story building with a mix of “standard” units, fully furnished micro-units and shared micro-suites that are rented by the room. A micro-suite contains three individual bedroom/ living areas plus a shared kitchen/dining area, shared bath and washer/ dryer.

The building has a community manager, described as similar to a cruise director, who organizes activities and outings. Opened in 2017, rent for the 664 square-foot, three-bedroom suite starts at $1,100.

Housing for grandparents

A development in Tucson, based on the multigenerational needs of its residents, may be the forerunner of many more of its type.

Las Abuelas Family Housing began with a group of grandparents raising their grandchildren sharing a vision for a safe place to provide childcare and assist one another. Opened in 2013, residents must be at or below 80 percent of the area’s average median income.

I have no doubt that the decade of the ‘20s will see many more innovations in housing to meet the changing physical and financial needs of an aging population.

Joe Nathanson is the not-quite-retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He can be contacted at [email protected].