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Local land use policies should increase affordable housing options for seniors

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In the next decade one in five Americans will be over the age of 65, ushering in what some call the silver tsunami, the largest population of seniors in U.S. history. 

This rise in our elderly population will bring with it a host of new challenges and opportunities. However, a recent report by the Milken Institute titled Age Forward Cities for 2030 says that although cities are “ground zero” for this demographic shift — as eight in 10 seniors live in cities — they are ill prepared for these changes. 

The report underscores the need to make our cities more age friendly with a greater sense of urgency, especially as it relates to housing. 

Of the 150 experts interviewed for the study, housing that is safe and affordable was the top aging-related priority to address locally, and the most significant goal in supporting the health of older adults. 

It is clear that the housing needs of older adults is one of the most critical issues facing our cities today, and we need local age friendly land use policies to adequately address this issue. 

According to a 2018 Harvard Study, more than half of the nation’s households are now headed by someone at least 50 years of age. And, whether they own or rent, millions of older households struggle to pay for their housing and other basic necessities, and their numbers are rising. 

The same study noted that more than half of households now in their 50s to mid-60s are especially at risk of having insufficient resources to manage rising healthcare and housing costs in their later years. 

By age 65, approximately 40 percent of middle-class Americans will fall into poverty or near poverty. This will impact their ability to find and keep housing. Nationwide, the number of homeless age 65+ will nearly triple from 2017 to 2030, to more than 100,000, according to projections in a study by university researchers in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. 

The U.S. elderly population is also expected to become more racially and ethnically diverse than it is today. 

Many of the housing issues listed above will disproportionately impact seniors of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, who are more likely to live in poverty, have lower wealth and homeownerships rates and less retirement savings than whites due to a long history of systemic racism. 

The 2019 Housing America’s Older Adults study noted that racial disparities in income, homeownership and wealth amongst seniors are widening. 

The housing challenges of the elderly are fierce and multi-layered, and thus our solutions must be innovative and multi-pronged. I recently led a series of housing needs focus groups and community meetings, which included over 60 seniors from across the Richmond region, to develop a regional housing plan. 

Seniors overwhelmingly wanted a diversity of housing options, from accessory dwelling units (ADU’s) attached to or on the same site of homes that allow for intergenerational living, to smaller houses on smaller lots, tiny home communities and more affordable rental options. 

One way local governments can enable more affordable housing options for seniors is to eliminate land use barriers by changing zoning to allow for higher densities in single-family neighborhoods. Washington, D.C.’s 7-year-old Age-Friendly D.C initiative includes zoning revisions allowing Accessory Dwelling Units.

California requires local governments to approve ADUs if the units comply with certain requirements and Montgomery County, Maryland, also reformed its regulations to make ADUs easier to build. 

Cities like Minneapolis and Seattle have implemented citywide rezoning in their comprehensive plans to address housing affordability. Minneapolis eliminated single-family zoning in order to increase both affordability and racial and economic equity in housing. 

Expanding policies that allow more single family homes to be converted into duplex and/or triplex units, the building of smaller single family homes and mid-sized apartment developments that are close to transit and services (or provide on-site services) would greatly benefit seniors. 

To be sure, zoning policies that allow for a greater diversity of housing types might spur NIMBYism, as we must overcome the perceptions that dense residential communities are associated with lower incomes, noise, and crime. 

It will also be key to write regulations so they do not inadvertently lead to speculation, gentrification or development of primarily luxury apartments. 

Moreover, while it’s important to tackle land-use laws that create barriers to the development of affordable housing, it’s equally important to increase local, state and national funding for affordable housing construction, housing rehab and rental assistance. Continued funding for programs like the Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program, a federal program that supports new construction of affordable senior units, is imperative. 

Perhaps the biggest leap the federal government can take to overcome our housing crisis is a universal housing voucher guaranteeing assistance for all those in need, many of whom are seniors. 

While we garner the political will for bolder state and national policies, more flexible land use policies are a tool that every local government has that could expand the affordable housing options of seniors. It’s foolish not to use it. 

Ebony Walden is an urban planner and principal consultant at Ebony Walden Consulting, an urban strategy firm in Richmond, Va. and an Encore Public Voices Fellow.


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