By Nancy Tannler
The housing shortage in our cities impacts all social strata of our population. This crisis is becoming especially serious for our growing senior population. In a recent poll, 86 percent of people 65 and older say they want to remain in their current community and home if possible. This is a quandary for a large portion of seniors who live in car-dependent suburban locations with little or no pedestrian infrastructure. For others, their houses are not equipped with accessibility features like no-step entries, extra-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles that would allow them to age in place.
Here in Oregon, 14 percent of our population is already over 65 and by 2030 one in five people, 25 percent, will be that old. The nuclear family consisting of a mother, father and two children (give or take) used to be the norm, but they make up only 20 percent of today’s households. The largest demographic, at 28 percent, is single adults who live alone.
For apartment-dwelling seniors living on a fixed income, federally subsidized rental housing is scarce. Two-thirds of eligible renters aged 62 and older don’t receive any extra housing assistance because allowing more subsidies would put too much strain on Medicare and Medicaid.
Seniors who own their own home face risks too. The rising cost of living, increasing property taxes and medical expenses will force many of them out of their homes. 70 percent of those who reach the age of 65 will eventually need some form of long-term care. Oregon does have a tax deferral program that allows qualifying residents who are disabled or senior homeowners to borrow from the State of Oregon to pay their county property taxes.
AARP has been working with private industry and government agencies to solve the problem of housing for older citizens since 1960. They presented plans for shared housing models that included younger families and retirees living together to the outgoing President Eisenhower and president-elect John F. Kennedy.
These types of changes are now becoming a part of mainstream planning. In the AARP article “Making Room–Housing for a Changing America,” it is said that, “Missing Middle housing is poised to become a critical part of the solution.” This has become an option for homeowners here in Portland. In June 2022 City Council legalized “Missing Middle” housing. Now a majority of residential lots can have a duplex, triplex, four-plex, mixed-income or below-market six-plex, large group co-living home, double ADU or a tiny backyard home on wheels.
In an age of personal digital technology, it is easier for people to live in small spaces. A smartphone can replace a desk, personal computer, bookshelves, CD racks and filing cabinets. And the growth of the sharing economy and an increasing commitment to sustainability are also reasons people are willing to reduce their amount of space.
Some suburban communities are beginning to alter their zoning rules to allow for more middle housing. There is still a strong resistance to this type of build because of how it might look in some areas. However, just the opposite may be the case as these infill structures often go unnoticed because they blend in.
Another popular trend that doesn’t require a large outlay of money is multigenerational living and homesharing. This is a way to provide on-site assistance for an elderly person and helps ward off isolation–the bane of aging in America. Home Share Oregon (HSO) is a nonprofit that connects homeowners who have a spare bedroom to rent and home seekers in need of affordable housing. More details about their work is available at homeshareoregon.org or 503.515.2397.
After the pandemic, Portland’s downtown office vacancy rose to 27 percent while housing vacancy rates dipped to five percent. The idea of converting some office space into apartments is an option. The problem is the high cost of the conversion. Commissioner Carmen Rubio and her colleagues proposed two incentives that City Council unanimously passed in March 2023 aimed at spurring residential development in downtown Portland.
One of the policies waives the system development charges (SDCs) to developers. The waiver of these fees will stand as long as the developers convert commercial buildings into residential property and comply with the required seismic upgrade. This exception lasts until 2027. The second incentive will lower the seismic improvement standards for buildings being converted from office buildings into multi-unit residential buildings.
An example of this type of redevelopment is found in Providence, Rhode Island. The Arcade, a Greek revival-style building, fell into disuse in the late 1900’s. In 2008 a developer turned it into a multi-use building with 48 affordable micro-loft units on the top two levels, with retail and restaurants down below.
Many solutions to housing our aging population have already been created and can be found at AARP.org/Makingroom. Moving forward, it will take the people’s foresight and a willing government to implement workable solutions.