Updated November 30, 2023 at 2:58 PM ET

A few decades ago, Leslie McIntire thought she was doing everything right for a comfortable life. She was a tax accountant in Washington, D.C., and co-owned a not-for-profit bookstore. "I had good savings," she says. "I was quite happy, quite frankly, and I was preparing to go back to school."

Then a car accident dislocated her hip and jaw, left her psychologically rattled and derailed her career.

McIntire held on in her rent-controlled apartment for a while, even after she was forced to go on disability and started burning through savings. She eventually realized she needed more help, but then had to endure a three-year wait to get into the federally subsidized senior housing where she now lives.

"And by the time I got in here, I was seriously considering going into a shelter," she says. "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."

McIntire is 69, part of the baby boomer generation that is entering older age amid a historic affordable housing shortage and rising wealth inequality in the U.S.

She wishes she'd known earlier how difficult things could get.

"I think that's the main thing people need to know," she says, "that they need to be prepared beforehand for what's coming down the road."

A record number of seniors are burdened by high housing costs

A newly released report from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies sounds a loud warning about what's ahead as the country ages rapidly, and how unprepared the U.S. is as boomers start to turn 80 within the next decade.

Nearly a third of households headed by seniors are considered cost burdened, which means they pay more than 30% of their income for housing. Half of that group pays more than 50%. And as the boomers have aged, households in this group reached an all-time high of 11.2 million in 2021.

That's likely to grow further as the number of households headed by someone aged 80 and over doubles by 2040.

"Their purchasing power is going down, at a time when rents are rising and other costs are rising, food and health care and all of that," says Jennifer Molinsky, project director of Harvard's Housing and Aging Society program.

Even for many moderate income seniors, Molinsky says the dual burden of housing costs and caregiving needs will be too much.

Here are some of the report's other findings:

  • Just 14% of older adults living alone could afford a daily visit from a home health aide, according to a Harvard analysis across 97 metro areas. Only 13% could afford to move into assisted living without dipping into assets. 

  • Homeownership rates among those 50-64 have fallen, especially since the Great Recession, suggesting that — as they age — fewer older seniors will have home equity to draw on for caregiving or other needs.

  • At the same time, the share of older households with mortgage debt has risen — along with other types of debt — and the amount of mortgage debt has grown far larger.

  • As with society at large, there is large income and wealth inequality among seniors. Black households, especially, are more likely to have lower incomes and to rent. Those who do own a house have, on average, less equity in it.

  • The warmer places many seniors prefer face more climate-driven extreme heat and storms. Many people may not be able to afford higher utility bills, rising property insurance rates, or reconstruction if their home is damaged.  

All this means the number of seniors who qualify for federal housing subsidies "is just growing and growing," says Molinsky, but there's not nearly enough of it to meet that demand. Unlike food assistance or Medicaid, public housing or rental vouchers are not an entitlement. "We're barely keeping up with serving a third" of seniors who qualify, she says, and "that other unserved number is just expanding all the time."

Older people make up a growing share of the homeless population

The Harvard report also notes that more people over age 50 are losing housing for the first time, while another large group has been chronically unhoused and aged on the streets. That includes Washington, D.C., native Harry Robertson.

"I could never stay nowhere more than one day," says the 56 year old, explaining that he spent years bouncing between shelters, rehab and staying with friends and family, never wanting to impose for too long. "If they allowed me two days, that was a blessing, so — spent a lot of time outside."

Robertson says he struggled with addiction, which caused rifts with his family and led Amtrak to fire him after 19 years as an equipment service technician. He's proud that he achieved lasting sobriety while caring for his mother before she died of cancer in 2019.

Robertson also recently became one of the lucky few with a federal housing voucher, placed in an apartment near his current job by the nonprofit Miriam's Kitchen. But the whole process to get the subsidy took five long years.

"My mental state then was not good at all. ... I was crumbling," he says. "It shouldn't take that long to get someone housing."

It can be hard to manage health problems without stable housing. Years on the street or in shelters also takes a heavy toll on mental and physical health, says Margot Kushel, who directs the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco.

"When you talk about homelessness, 50 is the new 75," she says.

In a sweeping survey of homelessness in California, Kushel found most people had lost housing because they simply could no longer afford the rent. She says older people who fall into homelessness are likely to have been in low-wage, physically demanding jobs without a pension or strong health care.

"Increasingly, the story of homelessness among adults is going to be older adults living in poverty, who are spending what should be their retirement years in the streets," she says.

Many boomers will face tough choices as they age

To keep more seniors housed in coming years, Harvard researcher Molinsky says it needs to be easier for people to age in place if they prefer. Among other things, the report suggests government programs to finance safety upgrades like ramps for those who can't afford them.

Molinsky says there should also be more options for seniors who want to move, and — like other affordable housing advocates — calls for zoning reforms to allow more apartment buildings in places long dominated by single family homes.

Without more help, the financial squeeze seniors face will force tough choices for many.

"It really is driving people's choices about where they want to live," says Molinsky. "It's driving their prioritization of other things in their budget, like out of pocket health care and food."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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