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As Austin's 65-Plus Population Grows, Seniors Face Housing Hurdles

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
A company called Lennar builds homes for 'multigenerational' families — i.e., older parents who live with their adult children. They're calling it the "next-gen" home.";

The 65-and-older demographic grows nationwide by about a million people every year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That spike in growth has played out in Central Texas, and Austin's been the epicenter of that growth. The city's seen a higher growth rate of its pre-senior population — those between 55 and 65 — than anywhere else in the country, and it has the second highest rate of senior growth, those 65 and older. 

While getting older has its perks, it also has its challenges, and a major challenge people 65 and older face is housing.

The view outside Alice Smith's bedroom is so gorgeous, she says she refuses to have curtains.

“When I wake up in the morning I'm laying on this bed and I'm down below window level so I lay here and I see the trees and watch the birds and listen to the birds,” she says.

Smith is retired and is a part of that growing 65-and-older demographic, or as some advocates like to say, 65-and-better. There are some benefits that come with increased age – professional expertise, maturity in decision making and a certain gravitas – but Smith’s favorite benefit is the leisure time.

“I don't have to get up at any particular time, so I just lay here. And it's just so pleasant,” she says.

Smith lives in an 8-by-24 feet RV by the Colorado River. Although, she says, this is not the retirement the 69-year-old envisioned. Like many women of her generation, Smith stayed home to care for her four kids. Once they were older, she balanced a series of odd jobs with caring for her elderly mother until her death.

“So, women my age and just above and below, we are all living on just this teeny tiny little social security and they are eliminating all places we can live. People are going to wake up one day and say, ‘Oh, my God, we are bounding with old ladies that have no places to live!’” she says. “We get food stamps, so we can eat. But, it's just a shame that when you've been a productive person all of your life and at the end of your life you can live in a trailer park in an old trailer, you know?”

She says it’s not right, but it is real. People 65 and older face a bigger housing crisis than the rest of us. Eighty-one percent of older Americans now live in urban environments.

But, in Texas, living in the urban core means potential housing shortages, no matter what age you are. The majority of 65-plus people in the U.S. are women, and as ages increase, women tend to outnumber men. For every 80-year-old man, there are two 80-year-old women, according to a DHHS study.

While many are enjoying good health and living longer, that poses a challenge as well. Even the ones with financial security eventually run out of money. Teresa Ferguson leads Austin Up, a new non-profit that focuses on older Austinites, she says that’s a situation with which she’s all too familiar.

“In fact, I live in that world,” she says. “My mom is in St. Louis. She was living in a retirement community where rent was maybe $2,200 a month, or something like that, and that money ran out. And it turned out that we found a convent that they've now opened up to low-income seniors.”

In Austin there are no convents opening their doors to seniors. In fact, there are very few places affordable enough for anyone whose only income is Social Security.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
A view of Alice Smith's trailer.

  So, what more people are doing is doubling, and sometimes tripling, up.

“We all live together in one big house! Eight of us there,” says Marilyn Barack, smiling as she watches her twin grandbabies play. Barack, her daughter and son-in-law live together, along with their toddler and twins, Barack's other daughter and her teenage son.

"As long as we communicate and be open and honest with each other, it works out,” Barack says. “A little bit of frustration here and there, but we get over it.”

Doubling up is not as common in the U.S. as it is in other cultures. Only about 2 million older Americans live in a home where a grandchild is present, but the financial crisis of 2008 flipped our cultural understanding of independence when, according to census data, it forced adult children to move back in with their parents.

So, most homes are not built with a multigenerational focus.

But a new type of home — called NextGen, being manufactured by company Lennar — addresses the mulitgenerational housing issue. The homes, some of which are clustered within a subdivision near Killeen, have smaller apartment-style units built within. Those units were built with the elderly in mind — an older parent can live independently in the unit while still living with their adult children and grandchildren.

"It's kind of a good way of raising kids – isn't it? It's a great, powerful, awesome influence of having multiple generations," says Cindy Thompson of NextGen.

The financial crisis of 2008 flipped our cultural understanding of independence when it forced adult children to move back in with their parents. Now, it is the parents who are the ones facing a housing crisis. Could it be solved – in part — by imitating the rest of the world and living in multigenerational households? Well, there's one idea.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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