Housing Industry Disconnect – Today’s housing will be a poor fit for tomorrow’s customers.
Three years ago, I was in a car accident. My knee has been giving me problems ever since and, at times, it’s a bit challenging to walk. Recently, my wife had an accident and broke her foot in two places. She was confined to a wheelchair for six weeks and will be facing four more weeks of therapy before she can try some light walking.
Even before her accident, we had been spending time looking at ranch style homes that would be easier for us to navigate as we grew older. Our needs and preferences are changing. We simply wanted a home where we could live comfortably and safely over the coming years.
During this process, I’ve been appalled at how out of sync builders are with the changing demographics of the country. My wife and I are getting older … and we’re not the only ones.
There’s no arguing with the numbers
Let’s look at the data.
- According to AARP, 10,000 U.S. Baby Boomers turn 65 every day. This is a long-term trend that’s expected to continue well past the 2030s.
- According to the CDC, one out of every four adults in the U.S. has a disability, including an impairment of their vision, hearing, mobility, or cognition. This proportion grows with age, with 40 percent of people over 65 living with some kind of disability.
- According to the CDC, 39.6 percent of the U.S. adult population have obesity issues, which will eventually translate into mobility issues.
Not only is our population aging, it’s also living longer. Here’s more from the U.S. Census Bureau:
- The number of 65 and older Americans is projected to more than double from 40.3 million in 2010 to 85.7 million in 2050.
- Our current average life expectancy is 78.6, and if you reach 65, there’s an even chance you’ll live to 85 or beyond.
In spite of these very clear trends regarding the number of people with possible housing accessibility challenges, I was told at one housing development we visited that if I wanted an elevator built into our home, I would need a doctor’s authorization, even though I was more than willing to pay for it.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise or a significant “a-ha moment” for builders to understand that older people simply don’t want to navigate steps – indoors or outdoors. Even if they’re navigable today, steps will eventually become an impediment as life moves on.
In general, houses continue to be built “up,” not across. There are far too many steps, tri-level, quad-level, and even three-story homes that don’t work well for a growing proportion of our population. Even ranch-style houses often have an excessive number of outdoor steps, which defeats a fundamental purpose of this design.
Here are some other residential construction industry decisions that don’t make sense given our clear demographic trends:
Virtually no cities currently have a 100-year building code. Homes are not built to last. Ironically, some economists say that’s a good thing. To them, cheaper, less durable housing discourages people from using homes as a long-term strategy for building wealth and, as a result, workers are less tied to a location and more inclined to pursue employment in high-demand locations.
Repair and maintenance become a huge budgeting issue over time, especially for those who retire and want to enjoy the next 25 years of their lives in a house that won’t fall apart?
More and more the phrase “affordable housing” is being equated with “future slums.” As soon as repair and maintenance costs begin to exceed the homeowner’s ability to pay for them, the entire community moves into a downward spiral.
And being saddled with an onerous mortgage process that demands 300-400 pages of closing documents and tens of thousands of dollars of processing costs for every transaction, makes the idea of moving a scary proposition for everyone involved.
Developers and homebuilders also seem to have their heads in the sand when it comes to the growing trend of multiple generations of a family living under one roof. Adult children, and their families, are commonly found living with parents. Elderly parents often prefer living with their children rather than in long-term care facilities.
The idea of remodeling a home also becomes a daunting proposition. Even the idea of remodeling a basement or adding an addition leaves homeowners fighting through layers of complexity as city codes and inspections, as well as homeowner associations, can drag a simple remodel into months of hair-pulling anxiety.
The real estate industry understands this, let’s hope home builders get the message soon.
Style and Comfort
Beyond the access and mobility issues above, “mainstream” houses don’t have handicap-friendly features – bathrooms, kitchens, or appliances – suitable for those with physical limitations.
Like me, you’ve probably been assigned a “handicapped” room at a hotel when you’ve arrived late in the evening. Sparse furniture and a bathroom with one drain in the middle of the floor because there are no shower barriers. It’s pretty spartan and depressing.
Handicapped-enabled housing doesn’t have to be like that. Given the right parameters, architects can easily design and equip a home with creative features that make it practical and attractive for both able-bodied and impaired people.
Future Proofing our Homes
Yes, I understand that housing is a data-driven industry, and developers are closely monitoring what’s selling and how fast. But the needs of today are radically different from the needs of tomorrow. And over time we will find our communities saddled with all the wrong inventory.
We need a future where people with age-related limitations aren’t treated like the rare exception in the mainstream housing market.
This demographic will be less and less the exception as we move into the future.
It’s time to be creative with home design and construction so we have a future where even though someone can’t easily navigate a staircase or climb into a shower, they’re not relegated to retirement homes and assisted living centers.