Before the coronavirus, there was a movement afoot to create more intergenerational housing and more interaction between the generations in general. While face-to-face initiatives are on hold while we socially distance, the need for housing where the young and old live side by side is more vital than ever. Yet decades-old policy creates unnecessary competition between the generations for funding.
Each year, states and cities offer opportunities to create affordable (low-income) housing development. These yearly rounds of funding typically prioritize one community in need — for instance, in Portland, Ore., this year, the focus is on homelessness.
In other years, the priority population changes (i.e., workforce housing, housing for people with developmental disabilities). The request for proposals makes this clear, and points are awarded to proposals that make the case that their housing plan will address the needs of the chosen population. States and cities could offer incentives for housing that meet the needs of multiple communities at once, but that’s not the way affordable housing funds are allocated. The given reason? Not enough funding.
According to a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, affordable, accessible housing for older adults in need of health supports is in short supply.
Meanwhile, millennial homeownership is approximately 8 percentage points lower in 2015 than the home-ownership rate of Gen Xers and baby boomers at the same age, according to the Urban Institute. And yet, our housing policy infrastructure makes it extremely challenging to create multigenerational housing that could benefit all.
And it’s not just housing policy where we’ve created silos of services for children, families, and elders separately. In the 1960s, senior centers and head start came to life. Rather than having such programs adjacent to one another and benefiting from the mutual connection of the populations and programs, these are in separate spaces and funded in separate silos. The separation creates divides instead of bridges across the generations.
In our COVID-era, we are worried about the impact social isolation is having on all of us, especially our elders. In intergenerational neighborhoods, people are creating safety nets to ensure their neighbors have the groceries and medicines they need.
As we slowly return to normal life, let’s envision something better: community centers where elders could read to young children, where young parents find encouragement from elders, and where children know they had many people who believed in them. Policymakers should never ask, “Do we fund PreK or Meals on Wheels?” All generations contribute to the fabric of a community. The competition isn’t even fair: children do not vote, while elders are the largest voting bloc.
Moving forward, we need to remake policy to benefit all generations. Leaders should not only be required to use an equity lens when they consider housing policy, as current policy dictates. They might also apply an age-friendly lens, which, according to the World Health Organization, “enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age.” This could be enshrined in housing policy and included within the consideration of equity.
Typically, affordable housing developers are incentivized to create the most amount of housing units for the least amount of cost per square foot. With age-friendly criteria, housing is designed for safety across the generations, with gathering spaces where residents can build relationships and connections. In other words, developers would be rewarded rather than penalized for developing healthy housing that encourages relationship building.
If age-friendly were criteria, intergenerational communities and programs would be the norm rather than just a nice idea.
Policymakers may be opposed to creating additional criteria to an already complicated housing funding process. Developers may resist creating housing with more requirements without additional financial incentives. Innovation can be difficult to fund within the strict guidelines of governmental funding. Yet, age-friendly housing criteria can make it so people age in place, which will create less need downstream.
So far, seven states have identified themselves as age-friendly, which means they pledge to apply the World Health Organization criteria in areas of housing, transportation, and community design. Ironically, Portland was one of the first two cities to sign on, though Oregon as a state has yet to commit. The other is New York City, and whenever our representatives are in the same room, they jockey over who was first. That’s the kind of competition we want.
Derenda Schubert, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and the executive director of Bridge Meadows. Bridge Meadows creates intergenerational communities where children, families and elders flourish. In these communities’ children from foster care have forever families, these families have the support of an entire community and elders live with meaning and purpose mentoring the children and supporting one another.