"Lifelong communities" are a new, unpleasant reality for homeowners in this trying housing market. Many older residents want to downsize but are trapped in houses they can't sell and looking at senior-friendly housing they can't afford.
It's encouraging that the Atlanta Regional Commission established its lifelong communities initiative as a local government partnership with caregivers and other aging experts. Innovative approaches are necessary to meet ARC's (moving) targets of "promoting housing and transportation options, encouraging healthy lifestyles and expanding information and access to services." Putting government in charge, however, is a sure guarantee that the region will be behind the curve on meeting the demands of seniors.
The changing aging population prevents a cookie-cutter solution for the graying of Georgia. That change is epitomized by the expression, "50 is the new 30." Society is increasingly transient, the community ties that bind no longer do, and the extended family is hardly ever close by.
Lifestyles are active, Botox trumps bowling, many retirees are traveling while more people are putting retirement on hold, because they're living longer, healthier lives and because of the painful economic climate.
Keller Williams Realtor Terri Anne Paguibitan sees older homeowners whose equity has eroded moving in with children and grandchildren instead.
"The seniors still able to buy new homes want smaller, single-level homes with common maintenance in small communities — but they don't want to sacrifice the nicer things they had in their subdivisions," Paguibitan says.
There's no shortage of such homes, but many seniors must first sell their current houses. That will improve with economic recovery. As that happens, the ARC's governments would best serve seniors' needs by stepping aside and encouraging flexible solutions.
For example, improving transportation for older Americans does not require establishing bus service. Increasing taxi licenses and jitney-type services will enable seniors who no longer drive to run errands.
Housing options can include a clearinghouse for home-sharing, in which older homeowners have a younger housemate/tenant, providing both mortgage and utilities help and company. Relax building codes instead of creating a host of new ordinances for senior residences, and the cost of such housing stock is likely to decline.
Those who can and wish to keep their homes but have affordability concerns should be told about reverse mortgages. The Government Accountability Office noted in June that reverse mortgages "allow seniors to convert their home equity into flexible cash advances while living in their homes. Borrowers "or their heirs can fully pay off the [loan] by selling the home." The GAO warns about hefty origination costs; those are likely to fall as popularity grows.
Housing and lifestyle choices should be encouraged — by reducing regulation, not increasing mandates. Whether "sustainable communities," "livable centers," "lifelong communities" or smart growth, don't believe it's smart to let government take the reins.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
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