As Southern Californians grow old, housing will be scarce; solutions, pitfalls are already here – Daily News

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Last winter, Barbara Miller, 69, was desperate. She needed to move from her home in Foothill Ranch, and wanted to relocate to Los Angeles to be closer to her children. But her career as a teacher and artist left her with too small of a pension to cover rent in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

James Niven, an artist and former dancer, wanted a roommate. At 81, he had extra space in his 99-year-old, three-story house in the Los Feliz neighborhood of L.A..

A non-profit home-sharing program, Affordable Living for the Aging, brought the two together last spring, believing their shared love of art, dance and Eastern philosophies made them a good match. In May, Miller rented a room with a view of the Griffith Observatory in Niven’s house, paying just $800 a month in an otherwise-pricey neighborhood.

“I was on the brink of homelessness,” Miller said recently.

Patting Niven on the leg, she added: “James here rescued me.”

“It went both ways,” replied Niven. “It was an answer to my prayers.”

With local housing already in short supply, and with Southern California’s population aging even faster than a rapidly aging nation, local older people increasingly could be hard-pressed to keep a roof over their heads.

RELATED: Home sharing, backyard cottages and renting out rooms help seniors find housing

Some solutions – like the relatively new home-sharing idea that brought Niven and Miller together, and ancient living arrangements that bring retirees together with adult children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren – are already coming into focus. Others have yet to be tried.

The coming wave of older people don’t want to age the way their parents and grandparents did, moving to retirement communities in places like Florida and Arizona.

A 2021 AARP survey found that 85% of people 65 and older want to age in their current residence. Though it’s unclear if that will happen (only 60% think it’s likely they’ll never move), the desire to keep their homes will boost demand for things like grocery and meal deliveries, senior-focused transportation and mobility-related home improvements.

It also could make tight housing markets even tighter. If a lot of retirees keep their homes, that could mean fewer housing options for younger families with kids.

Experts predict two trends could become critical solutions in high-priced markets like Southern California:

• Multi-generational living will become more common as adult children and parents pair up to share housing costs.

• Older homeowners with extra space are expected to supplement incomes by renting out rooms or backyard accessory dwelling units.

But those solutions won’t be available to everybody. And, experts say, the overall lack of housing, along with gaps in the social safety net, will mean financial burdens for many older residents.

The result could be a pair of public tragedies: More seniors living in shelters or on the streets, and more seniors waiting even longer for already overburdened public housing programs.

“As more and more people age, and more and more people live longer, we’re going to need to figure out how to deal with this housing crisis,” said Trent Stamp, CEO of The Eisner Foundation, which provides grants to arts, music and mentorship programs that bring young and old people together.

“There will be all kinds of answers,” Stamp added. “We’re only limited by our imaginations.”

A critical moment

America is aging fast, and Southern California is aging even faster.

Nationally, the 65-plus population is projected to grow from about 57 million people today to about 95 million by 2060. At that point, retirement-age people will account for 23% of the population.

In Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, however, that group will grow from about 15% today to 29% of the population in 2060, according to projections from the state Finance Department.

In raw numbers, the region’s 65-plus population of 2060 is projected to be 5.5 million. At the same time, state data projects the number of locals who are 20 and younger will shrink to 3.8 million people.

That shift is already prompting government officials, demographers and economists to start thinking about answers for big questions related to older people – including questions about where they’ll live.

“This is a critical moment in which to consider the housing needs of the nation’s older adults,” Jennifer Molinsky, aging program director at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, testified last March before a Senate committee.

Many older adults will end up living alone while struggling with limited incomes, a lack of mobility and health issues, Molinsky told the committee. Demand for affordable, accessible housing, in-home services and neighborhood support is set to soar.

“We fall well short of meeting even today’s needs,” she said. “Without concerted action, we are on track for even graver deficiencies that may diminish older people’s health and ability to remain in their communities.”

Studies show that when it comes to housing, older Americans fall into three main categories: homeowners, who make up the vast majority of the 65-plus group; renters who are becoming increasingly cost-burdened; and a small-but-growing number of homeless seniors.

Seven out of 10 Southern California residents 65 and older are homeowners, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. That means the vast majority of seniors have some resources.

So far, so good. But a growing older population means more households with disabilities. And studies from Harvard show that much of the nation’s housing lacks basic accessibility features, things such as ramps, grab bars, lower sinks and wider, wheelchair-accessible doorways.

Residential suburbs also are ill-suited for seniors who don’t drive and have mobility issues. That, in turn, can lead to isolation and a need for more services for the homebound.

The Village Movement of California seeks to address those concerns with social groups and services to help seniors age in their own homes.

For example, Claremont’s Aging Next program, a Village Movement affiliate, provides transportation, a senior companionship program and group dinners.

Stipends pay senior volunteers to help other aging residents. Volunteer drivers donate their time to chauffeur people who are no longer driving to doctor’s appointments.

“A lot of older adults will have their own home. But it’s the services that they cannot afford,” said Abby Pascua, Aging Next CEO. “Older adults are the ones who will be suffering later on because there are no available programs and services.”

Four generations

Years ago, Reid and Catheryn Kawai of Altadena, now ages 78 and 74, prayed for a bigger house. Reid wanted to invite church members over for social functions and Bible studies, but their living space – at the time a two-bedroom, 1,263-square-foot home – was too small.

Reid and Cathy Kawai, center, pooled their resources with their daughter and son-in-law, Allyson and David Way, doubled the size of their Altadena home and moved in together. From left, Kylie Way, 17; Allyson and David Way, Timothy Way, Caitlyn and Nathan Shin, and 3-month-old great-grandson, Owen. (Photo by Keith Durflinger, Contributing Photographer)

Then, in 2003, their son-in-law got a job transfer from Arizona back to Southern California. But with home prices soaring at the time, Allyson and David Way couldn’t even afford to buy back the house they had sold several years earlier.

If the two families pooled their resources, Reid Kawai thought at the time, they could double the size of his house and move in together. Independently, David and Allyson were thinking the same thing.

The Kawais and the Ways have been sharing their now-spacious San Gabriel Valley house for the past 19 years. That has meant splitting the costs for shelter. It’s also meant jointly raising the Ways’ three children.

Sometimes, when David and Allyson were busy working, Reid and Catheryn would drop off or pick up the kids from school.

It’s worked so well that they’re ready to do it again.

The families are seeking permits to convert a detached garage into a separate, two-bedroom cottage. If approved, that’ll become home for the Ways’ oldest daughter, son-in-law and their 3-month-old grandson. By next year, four generations will share one single-family lot.

“It’s a real blessing for us,” said Caitlyn Shin, 22, the Ways’ eldest daughter. “We’re nowhere near ready to buy a house. … (Now, we’ll) have some time to save money.”

Allyson Way plays with her grandson, Owen Shin, 3-months, at their one-story home in Altadena. The Way's are in the process of converting a detached three-car garage into a living unit for their daughter, son-in-law and three-month-old grandson. (Photo by Keith Durflinger, Contributing Photographer)
Allyson Way with her grandson, Owen Shin. (Photo by Keith Durflinger, Contributing Photographer)

The four-generation household is likely to become a model for the future, experts say.

While intergenerational households are common around the world, they’re currently more common in the United States among Asians and Latinos. But with the population aging and home building lagging, particularly in Southern California, three- and four-generation households could become common for people of every racial and ethnic background.

“Basically, young people can’t buy houses. Multi-generational families are just evolving,” said Dowell Myers, a USC professor who specializes in demographic impacts on housing.

“(Seniors) have a big enough house. They can accommodate family, kids and an older person or the older couple,” Myers said.

“I think it’s a sort of a natural adjustment. If you want to keep your kids in town, you got to provide them housing.”

Differences and clashes of values sometimes arise in the Kawai-Way household, family members said. But that pales in comparison with the amount of love and support they provide one another.

“I was never alone,” high school senior Kylie Way, 17, said of her upbringing. “There’s always someone to go to in this house.”

Allyson Way, 45, said it’s now her parents’ turn to be taken care of.

“It’s kind of our deal,” she said.

Homeownership gap

As the number of older households increases to unprecedented levels, inequalities are becoming more evident.

The latest census figures show that 76% of local White residents 65 and over own their homes, while the same is true for just 56% of older Black residents, 63% of older Latinos and 63% of older Asians, according to state demographers.

That will translate into increasingly unequal housing options for seniors.

Owning a home provides older people with greater housing security and more predictable costs than renting, housing expert Molinsky said in her congressional testimony. And ownership is associated with far greater wealth. In 2019, the median renter household headed by someone age 65 or older had just $5,800 in total wealth, compared with the median homeowner’s total wealth of $343,000.

“Over 60% of Black Americans in California are renters,” said Carlene Davis, co-founder of Sistahs Aging with Grace and Elegance, or SAGE, a group focusing on the needs of African American seniors.

“If you’re not living in an area where there’s rent control … that creates other vulnerabilities to homelessness.”

Families taking in older adults provides a potential safety net for some seniors. But if their relatives are out of state, Davis said, “that family safety net is not there.”

The effects of that vanishing safety net are already becoming clear.

A 2019 University of Pennsylvania study of homelessness in Boston, New York and Los Angeles projected that L.A. County’s homeless senior population will nearly double to 13,900 from 2020 to 2030, including almost 2,500 who will be 75 and older

While homeless seniors are expected to account for just a small fraction of all older L.A. County residents, even one is intolerable, said UCLA Professor Randall Kuhn, study co-author.

“There was a time when it was seemingly quite rare for people over age 65 to be unhoused … so the emergence of this phenomenon is troubling,” Kuhn said in an email.

“More troubling still is that homeless older adults are growing several times more rapidly than the old-age population in general.”

Roommates James Niven, 81, and Barbara Miller, 69, get their exercise every afternoon by dancing to Niven's eclectic music collection. A non-profit home sharing program matched the two seniors last spring. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Contributing Photographer)
Barbara Miller, 69, with her roommate, James Niven, 81, in the home they share in Los Angeles. Miller, who lives on a fixed income, rents a room in Niven’s three-story house near Griffith Park after the non-profit Affordable Living for the Aging Home Share program matched them up. “I had an extra room and was very much looking forward to having someone share (the house) with me,” Niven said.

Still dancing

Miller, who left Foothill Ranch for Los Feliz earlier this year, volunteers twice a week at Food on Foot, a program that helps feed people who don’t have a permanent home. Her own brush with homelessness last spring “woke me up to their situation,” the retired art teacher said.

Miller is giving back after a home-sharing program helped her find housing in James Niven’s rambling three-story home, filled with family photos, art, books and keepsakes.

In just a few months, in addition to being roommates, Miller and Niven also become close friends. They share a bohemian outlook. Miller is a devotee of the Indian spiritual leader known as Amma. Niven has practiced Buddhist chanting for 42 years.

Each day at 4 p.m., Niven cranks up his living room stereo, picks an album from his eclectic music collection, and the two senior citizens get their exercise, dancing to the likes of Elton John, The Beatles, Madonna and “Flashdance.”

“I love dancing,” said Niven, who joined a professional dance troop in his youth. “We dance to something different every day.”

Niven has lived in the home he now shares with Miller off and on since his parents bought it in 1960. Apart from a handyman who lives in a backyard coach house, Niven had been living alone in his six-bedroom home for 1 1/2 years.

“I was very lonely,” Niven said. “A social worker at Kaiser told me about (the ALA Home Share program), and I said, ‘It sounds great.’”

A program matchmaker interviewed both Niven and Miller, visited the house and decided they’d do well living together. Niven and Miller both say they’re happy with the arrangement.

“I had an extra room and was very much looking forward to having someone share (the house) with me. I wanted a housemate,” Miller said. “It’s been a dream come true. I could not have found a more wonderful, compatible person in the world.”

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