Rodney Harrell (PhD ’08) and Shannon Guzman (M.C.P. ’08) will tell you that senior housing issues in America aren’t a senior problem—they’re an everyone problem. In less than 10 years, there will be 72 million people over the age of 65 in the United States. Many of those individuals will be cared for by some 48 million family members. Where they will live—and the quality of life they receive in those places—largely depends on how prepared we are as a nation.
“Senior housing is just now starting to bubble up in the public consciousness as a national issue,” said Harrell, Vice President of Family, Home and Community for AARP’s Public Policy Institute. “This problem has been here for some time and will take an all-hands-on-deck effort to address it.”
The solutions are within reach, in part, because of efforts and advocacy by Harrell and Guzman, who serves as the institute’s Director of Housing and Livable Communities. For 14 years, Harrell has chipped away at the barriers to housing affordability and choice. Ten years ago, he helped recruit Guzman—a fellow alum of MAPP’s Urban Studies and Planning Program, where Harrell earned his PhD and who, he says, delivered a memorable capstone on senior housing. Together they are creating renewed urgency around senior housing and livability issues—and momentum around the policies, programs and partnerships that will fix them. They were both instrumental in developing AARP’s Livability Index, which evaluates communities on aging-friendly metrics like diverse housing options, walkability, services and safety, delivering a “where’s where” list of high-performing U.S. cities and towns. Their work in livable communities has also informed AARP’s network of age-friendly cities and states, each locality working on the ground to improve livability outcomes for seniors; it has ballooned from 16 in 2015 to over 700 today. Recently, Harrell, Guzman and AARP’s housing team launched new collaborations with two powerhouses on the home front—Lowe’s and the National Association of Realtors—to help seniors and their families practically plan for their future.
“You want to start thinking about this before you need it,” said Guzman. “The 50-plus demographic is our focus, but we want to engage younger people too as they consider different housing choices.”
Below, Guzman and Harrell share where we’re falling short, some promising solutions and where the next generation fits in:
By 2034, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to exceed the number of children under 18 for the first time in U.S. history. COVID seemed to shed light on just how precarious senior housing is right now. How has that impacted your work at AARP?
Harrell: One thing that COVID did is draw attention to some longstanding issues that we need to tackle, including housing that meets the needs of people of all ages and housing that’s affordable. I think it also gave a pause for folks to think about other challenges, like equity. We wanted to figure out how we could use AARP’s strengths and focus on issues that we could move, but also issues that have momentum—and see how we could maximize change. We ended up focusing on a few things: housing equity and keeping people in the homes, which was such a pressing issue, and the idea of working with the private industry to make that happen. We need all the legs of the stool to make change—government, private sector, and individuals—and that all fed into our strategic thinking over time. What COVID did is take that thinking and gave more urgency to put it into action.
Guzman: [At AARP] we talk a lot about age-friendly housing and how we can expand housing options—like accessory dwelling units (ADUs), missing middle and multi-generational housing—but also housing affordability. Not just “affordable housing,” which is very important, but also housing that can meet people at different income levels. If a person wants to downsize or if they have a medical issue, do they have housing in their neighborhood so that if they need to leave their home, they can move within their community? We look at accessible housing as well—the type of housing that integrates certain design and visibility features that make it easier to navigate, so that someone with varying levels of mobility can stay active and independent and use their home for a longer period.
You both have written extensively about ways the U.S. can boost housing opportunity for seniors. What’s a novel housing solution that you think deserves more attention?
Harrell: ADUs–secondary units to an existing home on the same lot, such as in-law suites—can change existing neighborhoods and keep people close to what they want. Maintaining social networks is important but so is access to grocery stores and services—places that you know. What we tend to do in this country when we need more housing is build further out—but you lose those [social networks and services] and have to recreate them in these new places. ADUs can bring new housing into existing communities and create some new, needed options. That’s really exciting to me.
Guzman: Our work with Lowe’s is pretty innovative; it offers education and tools for people who want to age in place, which is 77% of people age 50 and older today. Assisted living facilities and nursing homes can run between $50,000 to $100,000 a year; it’s just more affordable for people if they can live at home. But less than one percent of homes are equipped with the features people need to age in place without barriers. And people don’t know where to start. We’ve been able to educate Lowes staffers but also the general public and help people think about these options for now, or what might be ahead. Tools AARP has developed—like the AARP HomeFit Guide, which takes a room-by-room approach—are helping us raise that awareness. You want to start thinking about this before you need it!
You both helped develop AARP’s Livability Index—the newest iteration launched in April. What’s changed this time around?
Guzman: There’s obviously new data and a new list of top scorers. We saw the addition of Philadelphia in our top scoring communities because of their variety of housing options compared to other big cities. And we added a new list of small towns—25,000 people or less—to look at their performance as well.
Harrell: One of the big takeaways is that places that have high livability in other ways often have high housing costs. While the Index considers housing, we look across 61 indicators (40 metrics and 21 policies); if you want a home in a neighborhood that’s close to transit and a grocery store, they are often very expensive. We need to do more to make places that are more livable and more affordable as well.
What’s revealed in the Index scores is that all of these communities have tradeoffs; there are good things about every community and there are challenges. I love when the mayors and other local leaders of these communities dig into the categories to see what they can do to improve lives of people in our community. That really makes me feel great, because we can see our work actually having an impact.
What role does our practicing community, particularly our younger graduates, play in addressing the senior housing crisis? What’s their call to action?
Guzman: When it comes to community, we all really want the same thing: we want those social connections; we want to be close to the grocery store or the library. I would say that, as you think about your career choices and apply your knowledge in your work, keep aging in mind. Share what you know and use your expertise, but make sure you’re engaging with the community and listening. Make those intergenerational connections and apply what you learn to your work. There’s a place for you in the aging field.
Harrell: Think holistically. Understand that there are many in communities who have the power to make change and work across sectors and groups with those folks. It’s not as cut and dry as it may seem. Addressing the levers to create change in communities takes a broad, multidisciplinary approach. That’s what drew me back to UMD and MAPP; that interdisciplinary aspect is so unique. I would suggest that students branch out from their required classes and do what they can to understand all the pieces of the built environment. If you can understand those pieces, that’s how you can really make change.