As highlighted in an article in the November edition of AgeWise King County, AARP recently conducted a survey of adults over the age of 45 in Seattle to inform and guide the Age Friendly Seattle initiative. The survey provided a lot of data on the housing situation of adults at or near retirement age. Eighty-four percent of them said that remaining in their current residence for as long as possible is at least somewhat important. However, only 45 percent plan to stay put and never move. This discrepancy means that there is a large group who want to stay put and yet are anticipating that they may have to move. Understanding why that is and doing what we can to address it will help Seattle and other cities in the region become more age-friendly.
When housing experts and economists talk about displacement risk, they generally focus on the housing cost burden—the proportion of income spent on housing. With the swiftly rising cost of housing, this issue has attracted a lot of attention. Several recent actions by the Seattle City Council have been aimed at improving affordability or preventing displacement, including the passage of new regulations for AirBnBs and other short-term rentals. At the regional level, King County has convened an Affordable Housing Task Force to consider potential solutions.
Survey data support the notion that affordability, or lack thereof, is a big concern to older and middle-aged adults. Thirty nine percent of Seattle residents over 45 say that the cost of maintaining their current residence is a major factor that would cause them to consider a move, and 46 percent cite the desire to live in an area with a lower cost of living. There is another factor, however, that is even more important. The most-often cited major factor, according to Seattle residents, is “wanting a home that will help you live independently as you age, for example, a home without stairs.”
Age friendly housing is even more important to those who are at risk of a forced move. Fifty-six percent of this group agree that the desire for housing that allows them to age independently is a major factor, which, again, ranks more highly than any of the other factors that might force people to move, including cost, home size, personal safety or security concerns, wanting to be closer to family, and wanting to live in a different climate.
To allow people to age in place, homes must be affordable and accessible. “Accessibility” is a concept, some people might assume does not apply to them. Advocates also use terms such as “universal design” and the narrower concept of “visitability.” Visitability refers to “single-family or owner-occupied housing designed in such a way that it can be lived in or visited by people who have trouble with steps or who use wheelchairs or walkers.” For more information on these concepts, check out the Northwest Universal Design Council at environmentsforall.org or the National Council on Independent Living’s Visitability.org website.
As Seattle’s Age Friendly Action Plan is finalized and moves into implementation, housing will undoubtedly stay at or near the top of the agenda. In fact, Aging and Disability Services, King County, the City of Seattle Office of Housing, and other key stakeholders are already working with Washington State University to develop an Age Friendly Housing Assessment. The assessment will inform a Countywide Age Friendly Housing Plan that recognizes the importance of affordability, visitability, and supports and services that allow people to stay healthy and age in place.
Contributor Jon Morrison Winters is the lead planner on transportation and housing issues for Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. He can be reached at Jon.Winters@seattle.gov or 206-684-0654.