Scarcity of Accessible Housing for an Aging Population

A study published in Housing Policy Debate titled “Housing for an Aging Population” by Sewin Chan and Ingrid Gould Ellen at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service finds a scarcity of accessible housing for the nation’s growing senior population.

Accessible housing allows seniors, who are more likely to develop mobility impairments as they age, to remain in their homes and receive community-based care instead of becoming institutionalized. Accessibility features also prevent accidents, like falls, that cause future mobility impairment. Demand for accessible housing is expected to grow significantly by 2040 when seniors will account for 21% of the U.S. population.

Little research has examined how well the nation’s housing stock is prepared for the current and growing demand for accessible housing. The authors utilized the 2011 American Housing Survey to develop a cumulative, three-level scale of accessibility for individual homes. They identified homes as:

  • Level 1: Potentially Modifiable - “homes that are not yet accessible but have essential structural elements that make them potentially modifiable;”
  • Level 2: Livable - “homes that are appropriate for individuals with moderate mobility difficulties;” and
  • Level 3: Wheelchair Accessible - “homes that are accessible to wheelchair users.”

The authors found that 33% of all units nationwide were potentially modifiable (level 1), but fewer than 4% were livable (level 2) and less than 0.2% were wheelchair accessible (level 3). When controlling for other factors, like building age, type, and unit size, renter-occupied and owner-occupied units were equally likely to be accessible. Publicly subsidized rental units were more likely to be accessible. Public housing and privately-owned subsidized rental units were 2.5 times more likely than owner-occupied units to be livable (level 2). Privately-owned subsidized units were 3 times more likely than owner-occupied units to be wheelchair accessible (level 3).

The study also examined the housing stock occupied by seniors. Fifteen percent of households with a disabled senior resided in housing that was livable to someone with moderate mobility impairment. Fewer than 1% of such households lived in units that were wheelchair accessible. Although the senior population is on the rise, the market does not appear to be responding to the growing need for accessible housing. The authors conclude that there is a “startling scarcity of units in the U.S. housing stock that are suitable for aging” and that further research is needed to understand the precise reasons for this.      

Housing for an Aging Population is available at: