Limited housing stock coupled with economic growth and a growing population are driving up home prices in the Bay State, which in turn increases property tax bills.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a monthly series focused on housing challenges in Massachusetts.
With Social Security and the money she made selling her home three years ago, 75-year-old Cynthia Johnson calculated she could afford to live the rest of life at an independent senior-housing facility.
But that all changed earlier this year when the establishment - which she asked not to be named for fear of retribution - implemented a $60 monthly rent increase, telling Johnson the cost likely would continue to climb each year moving forward.
“I thought I wouldn’t need to go anywhere else,” she said. “I don’t want to be squeezed out, but I have no control over the rent raises. I’m afraid.”
Johnson, who moved to Hopkinton from Natick, is one of a growing number of seniors in Massachusetts struggling to keep stable housing over their heads in the twilight of their lives, which is an issue experts say will only worsen over the next couple decades.
The Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston tracks senior living expenses across the country, including individuals and families aged 65 years and older living with incomes above the federal poverty level, but below the true cost of living.
Mississippi ranks No. 1 in the nation with the most seniors “living in the gap,” as it’s called, largely because incomes are so low. Massachusetts is No. 2, but for an entirely different reason.
“It’s not because income is low, but because the cost of living is so high, and what’s driving that is housing,” said Len Fishman, director of the Gerontology Institute.
The housing crisis facing seniors in Massachusetts is unique, multifaceted and has far-reaching repercussions. Limited housing stock coupled with economic growth and a growing population are driving up home prices in the Bay State, which in turn increases property tax bills. The growing costs are especially challenging to moderate- and low-income seniors who own homes and live on fixed incomes. Renters - like Johnson - face rent hikes, especially as landlords pay more in taxes, and are enticed to push out renters in order to renovate and increase prices or sell their more valuable homes to the highest bidder.
For many, getting pushed out can result in homelessness, which is a growing problem in Massachusetts, and especially taxing on seniors.
“A homeless cohort at 55 years old has the geriatric profile in terms of disabilities and other health issues as a housed cohort of 70 to 75,” said Mark Hinderlie, president and CEO of Hearth Inc., a nonprofit focused on fighting elderly homelessness.
In past generations, older adults would often look to downsize, especially as children left home. Depending on preference or need, housing options could include independent living, assisted living or nursing homes. More recently, housing for people aged 55 years and older is becoming popular, sometimes referred to as “active” living communities.
But the home-to-senior-housing progression of life has changed in recent years, in part because seniors are living longer. And “aging in place,” meaning living the rest of life at home, is becoming ever more popular.
“People who have lived into their 80s and 90s until now feel like they got there unexpectedly,” Fishman said. “Now, people expect to live that long, for the first time in human history. That has a profound effect on what people think they’re going to do in old age.”
The aging-in-place attitude is further encouraged by the fact that smaller units at an affordable rate are scant. Many communities, including Hyannis, Lexington, Medfield and Taunton, recognize this is a growing issue, and are searching for solutions. But Massachusetts historically has done a poor job building affordable housing.
Five decades ago, the state determined at least 10 percent of the housing stock in every municipality should be affordable. Today, 50 years later, more than eight of every 10 communities still fall short of the 10 percent threshold.
The good news for seniors is that what little affordable housing is being built is largely earmarked for older adults, who put less of a strain on local budgets because they don’t typically have children.
The bad news is that 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement age each day until 2030, meaning the competition for affordable housing units is growing faster than new units are coming online.
“The main takeaway is that we’re not producing the number of subsidized senior housing anywhere near where we need to,” Fishman said.
The demographic shift and housing constraints, along with the growing desire to age at home, is having a multigenerational effect.
“This has a domino effect across the ages, because seniors can’t put their oversized homes on the market, so younger people are dealing with a supply of housing that is smaller than it would otherwise be,” he said.
Freddie Mac, the public mortgage company, estimates seniors born between 1931 and 1941 have higher home-ownership rates than previous generations at the same age, accounting for about 1.6 million houses held back from the market through 2018. That number represents more than half of the current shortfall of 2.5 million housing units across the country, according to a February report.
“The additional demand for home ownership from seniors will increase the relative price of owning versus renting, making renting more attractive to younger generations. However, a shortfall of new construction puts upward pressure on both house prices and rental rates,” according to the report.
In Massachusetts, a shortfall of new construction makes housing even less affordable, leaving seniors feeling stuck without options in a state where there once were many.
Until about three decades ago, federal subsidized housing for seniors was commonplace in the United States, giving older residents a clearer path to downsizing into something they could afford. Today, nearly one-third of the 4.5 million American seniors who need some type of housing subsidy cannot find one available, and the affordable housing waiting lists can be daunting.
“Many organizations’ waiting lists are closed because they’re so long that people who are on them will never make it. They either die first, or find housing elsewhere,” said Fishman.
Johnson, who receives $1,085 from Social Security and pays $2,545 for her room and board each month, has applied for a subsidized housing voucher, and is trying to convince the owners of the facility to accept it. Currently, she says, the business will not accept any form of subsidy, adding another challenge to finding affordable housing.
“It means anyone who isn’t very rich isn’t welcome,” she said.
Last month, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced he would take another shot at passing legislation to make it easier for cities and towns to overhaul local zoning ordinances surrounding housing. A similar effort begun in 2017 by the governor failed to pass the state Legislature, and the state’s housing situation, according to Baker, has only worsened in the two years since.
“We’re making a big mistake with respect to the future that we all want if we don’t step up and fix this,” Baker recently told the State House News Service.
In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh has turned back the clock, introducing a local law that would limit landlords’ ability to raise rent on tenants aged 75 years and older by more than 5 percent each year.
The proposal would bring back to Boston a form of rent control, which was voted down by all Massachusetts residents in the 1990s, even though it was only allowed in Boston, Brookline and Cambridge. The three communities overwhelmingly supported keeping rent control, but were narrowly defeated largely by voters from other cities and towns. Rent-control proponents at the time said it would “lead to wholesale evictions of poor, elderly and handicapped people,” according to a 1994 report by The New York Times.
For local and state leaders, the feeling now is that something must be done to rectify a problem that’s been brewing for years, and will only get worse. Fishman largely agrees.
“As we move further into the future, you’re going to find older cohorts that have less good-paying jobs, and far fewer pension benefits,” he said. “These folks are going to find it extremely difficult to live, and the number one expense that they’re going to be dealing with is housing costs.”
Eli Sherman is an investigative and in-depth reporter at Wicked Local and GateHouse Media. Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.