Economy

When someone spends a significant portion of their income on housing, it can mean making difficult choices about what else they can afford in life. They might choose to go without medication or eat peanut butter sandwiches every day to make rent.

As America’s population continues to age, the number of households led by someone 65 or older is growing rapidly. And among those households, there are more than ever who are defined as “cost-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, according to a report released Wednesday from Harvard University.

Tasha Downs, a program coordinator with the affordable energy program All Seasons Assurance Plan (ASAP) in Louisville, said she’s seen the seniors her nonprofits serve make these kinds of difficult decisions.

“A lot of them are stressed out and ready to give up,” she said. “It’s kind of a hard decision to take and kind of say, which one do I want to pay?”

Downs said these decisions can lead to worse health outcomes and further exacerbate existing problems. Her organization has more than 2,500 clients, most of whom are seniors and renters.

According to the Harvard report, older renters are more likely to be burdened by housing costs than those who own their homes. The report analyzed Census data, and showed that trend to be true in major Kentucky cities.

In Louisville, which is facing a massive affordable housing shortage, more than half of renters 65 and older were cost-burdened, compared to about one-fifth of homeowners in that age group. The rates for renters of that age in Elizabethtown/Ft. Knox and Lexington were about 52 and 46 percent, respectively. But only about 14 percent and 18 percent of homeowners in those cities were cost-burdened.

Just like other states, many of Kentucky’s older adults pay more than a third of their incomes on housing. But some groups in the state fare a little better than others, including renters in the 65 to 79 age group and homeowners older than 80.

Authors of the report also wrote that issues such as income inequality and racial discrepancies in homeownership have also grown in recent years. For example, whites over 65 were about 19 percent more likely than African-Americans in that age group to own their homes, a 30-year high.

“These inequalities are important because homeownership provides older households greater housing security and more predictable housing costs than renting,” the report’s authors wrote.

Downs, of ASAP, said assistance programs like hers or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program can help seniors with low or fixed incomes make their bills. And nearby family or friends can help, especially because some older adults have trouble getting around and aren’t comfortable taking care of things online or over the phone.

“Those family members can help them fill out the paperwork they need to get extra assistance, they can take them to appointments,” she said.

She said organizations and government need to find new ways to reach older adults in need of assistance.

According to the Harvard report, the number of low-income households in America headed by older adults is expected to grow by millions in the coming decades. It said there were more than three million such households in 2007, but projected the number could approach eight million by 2038.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Reporter.