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The Washington Scene

Most Older Persons Own Their Homes

Last in a three-part series.

July 26, 1987|JOHN BETZ WILLMANN | Special to The Times

Older Americans are achieving more prominent profiles, mainly because the U.S. population 65 and over is growing more than twice as fast as the rest of the nation.

In terms of housing, older Americans are better situated--on average--than most younger counterparts because 72% of people over 65 own their houses and only 20% are renters. Only 4% of the graying generation lives in some kind of federally financed or subsidized housing. About the same number, about 1.2 million, are in nursing homes or custodial facilities.

"The biggest challenge in senior housing today is to provide low-and moderate-income seniors, usually older widows, the shelter and services that moderately disabled or frail poor people require," Erik Gjullin told a seminar sponsored by the Mortgage Bankers Assn. here.

Gjullin, whose specialty is housing for elderly persons, agreed with other speakers that the major challenge is to meet the physical and financial needs of the "older old" and to provide public and private help for less affluent seniors.

Little wonder that the powerful multimillion-member American Assn. of Retired Persons pushes the viewpoint that "strong federal involvement is indispensable to achieving adequate housing for all older citizens. Specifically, AARP supports continued funding and reform of Section 202 housing for older and handicapped persons, federal insurance for reverse mortgages and federal standards for board and care programs.

AARP has sponsored a national telephone survey of 1,500 older adults who revealed that fear of jeopardizing their home ownership is high among their concerns. These people added that they would like to get some property tax relief for homeowners and rent subsidies for tenants. Keeping their homes and bodies in the best possible shape are No. 1 and No. 2 concerns.

As general counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, J. Michael Dorsey was the only Reagan Administration official on the MBA program. He said half the public housing units in America are occupied by older persons--many of whom fear for their personal safety in public projects. He added that older persons generally are "reluctant to move into family apartments."

Dorsey suggested that the federal role to aid older persons needing housing help might best be done with vouchers to cover part of their housing costs.

In general, elderly persons are comfortable in their homes, which are often larger than they really need, said William Apgar Jr., associate director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, only 1% of elderly respondents surveyed said they have a room they do not need. Only 2% expressed overall dissatisfaction with their present living unit, and 41% said they would like to have at least one more room than they now have.

Apgar contends that over the next five years, only 4.7 million elderly homeowners can be expected to change residences.

Speaking for himself and other builders, Allen Scott of Ohio contended that Apgar was forgetting that aging Americans have to be sold on a new, better and alternative life style in buying a new house.

A current resident of an adult community reminded Apgar that many newly retired persons move to assure greater personal safety in taking walks in the evening and also to feel more secure in leaving their homes when they take trips or spend winters in warmer climes.

Apgar accepted both comments as "should-have-been-mentioned" items.

A recent survey of older persons in affluent Montgomery County, Md., just north of the District of Columbia, disclosed that 96% of the elderly, whose numbers are rapidly increasing, live in their own homes and 91% did not get any help in paying for their housing. Also, the most dissatisfied persons were those who recently moved into the suburban county and were living with children or other persons.

The groups needing help most in Montgomery County were women over 80 with low incomes and no spouses and men in their 70s and 80s who were caring for invalid wives. That finding confirmed the research of MBA panelist Bruce Jacobs, who cited the increase of "old and alone" persons whose No. 1 fear is the threat of a catastrophic illness.

Jacobs also noted that he has recently observed an increase in the break-up of senior marriages.

Although most older Americans do not want to change their style of housing and create apartments within their single-family houses or to use shared housing, there are exceptions. For instance, Eloise Keeler, 81, of Marin County, Calif., leases a basement apartment to a recent college graduate to become more secure financially and personally. She told AARP that the tenant telephoned her during violent storms just to make sure she was all right. She likes that feeling of knowing someone cares.

Attendees at the MBA housing seminar on problems of housing for elderly also were told by several speakers that passage of a federal demonstration project for reverse mortgages is likely to be passed this summer as part of a major housing bill, and get a White House signature if the plan is not too costly.

The idea of home-equity or reverse-mortgage financing is to provide income through gradually increasing home indebtedness to older persons who need money to keep their houses and make ends meet.

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