Monday, September 29, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: Another Downside to Drivable Suburbia

In the spring of 2009, I attended a series of public lectures about urbanism on the University of California, Berkeley campus.  Among the speakers was a representative from Calthorpe Associates, the firm founded by leading edge urbanist Peter Calthorpe.

I’ve forgotten the name of the Calthorpe person, but one of his comments stuck with me.  In looking at the long-range market for American housing, he and his associates had calculated the number of large-lot single-family homes that would be needed in 2037.  It was fewer than the number of large-lot single-family homes that existed in 2009.  We could have immediately stopped building homes in that category and, assuming that we preserved much of the current stock, still met demand thirty years in the future.

Among the professionals with whom I attended the lecture series, several were openly skeptical of the projection, noting the urbanist slant of Calthorpe Associates.  Personally, I found the forecast intriguing and would have appreciated the opportunity to dig into the data and assumptions behind it.  I thought the prediction might well have been accurate.

But I didn’t foresee that the implications of a reduced demand for large single-family homes would begin impacting seniors within only a few years.  Indeed, it is one of the largest stumbling blocks to finding a better solution for senior life in the U.S., a topic that I began considering in my previous post.

Writing for CityLab (the former Atlantic Cities), Kriston Capps outlines the problem that seniors are facing with their suburban homes.  Many are unable to sell their homes in the aftermath of the great recession.  Not only are many potential buyers more interested in urban life, but the tightening of mortgage qualification standards precludes the buyers would may still wish a suburban life from securing the needed financing.

Adding onto the Capps observations, the continued greying of the population means that more and more suburban homes are available at a time when fewer buyers interested in them.  It’s the Calthorpe projection, filtered through supply-and-demand economics.

Also, many seniors had based retirement planning on financial projections that used the home values from before the burst of the housing bubble.  Even if the seniors can find home buyers in 2014, the prices may not support the retirement they had envisioned.

As Capps then notes, in an observation repeated by Rachel Kaufman writing in Urbanful, if seniors are forced to remain in their homes, multiple improvements are required if they are to live safe and comfortable lives.  The changes can include wider doorways, single-level living, lower counters, grab bars, and levers in place of doorknobs.

But the changes have costs, sometimes substantial costs, and the bill may be beyond the reach of seniors already struggling with reduced home values.  (Capps also notes that seniors are increasingly likely to fall behind in mortgage payments.)

The final part of the story is told by Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post.  She notes that much of suburbia is livable only to those who can drive.  As seniors reach the age when they’re no longer safe behind the wheel, or when family, doctors, or the state has taken away driving privileges, then they become truly isolated.

If we try to tally the number of ways in which senior life has run afoul of urbanism, the result is astonishing.  It’s like a Catch-22 squared, or even cubed.  At a time of life when living in urbanist settings might best fit their daily needs, many seniors find that the desirability of urban life to other demographic segments has reduced the market values of the seniors’ suburban homes, limiting their ability to move to urban retirement destinations or even to afford the modifications necessary to make their homes safe as they age.

Is the problem insolvable?  To a large extent, yes.  But there are always at least a few actions that can be taken.  Over my next posts, I’ll write about remedies to the current dilemma and strategies to keep the next wave of seniors from being trapped by the same constraints.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I discovered your blog when it was shared by Petaluma Patch via email as it was highlighted.

    I've read through some of your older posts and am looking forward to the future ones specifically pointed towards the seniors and urbanism.

    I have a mother with whom we've recently been having discussions about her best livability options after a recent stint in a skilled nursing facility. We're facing the reality that her current situation may not be sustainable in the years to come.

    My husband and I are now in our 50's and are looking at what the future may hold for us and whether we can even afford to retire in our beautiful Petaluma.

    So your posts come at a good time to help us learn more...I look forward to the future one...

    1. Anatasia, thanks for writing. I have a mother for whom I'm seeking a good living solution in the North Bay, so I understand the issues.

      Of course, my blog approach won't be to critique current options as much as to hopefully lay the groundwork for better options in the future, when my wife and I will also be in need of it.