Two trends are underway that could radically reshape how we design and manage our communities: the ever-growing risks associated with climate change and an increasingly large population of older adults. The way we provide housing in our communities could help address both trends—and mitigate risks for those who are most vulnerable.
The United States is experiencing more billion-dollar disasters (24 so far this year) than in prior years (18 in 2022, and an average of eight per year for decades prior), including extreme heat, more-powerful storms, drought, and devastating wildfires. At the same time, the share of older adults is soaring; people over age 65 are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2034, our country will be home to more people over 65 than under 18—for the first time ever.
These dual trends intersect, compounding risks for older adults because of their unique mobility, health, and financial needs. Creating a more climate-resilient future for the growing share of older adults in our communities means planning for more people who don’t drive (20% of older adults), those living with dementia (one in 9 people over 65), those who live at or below the poverty line (roughly 15% of people over 65), and those who don’t use in-home internet as a means to stay informed (nearly 25% of older adults).
Housing is critical to the climate resilience of older adults. But the United States already fails to provide housing stock that meets the needs of our people. It’s a nation where workers earning minimum wage can’t afford a market-rate, two-bedroom rental; where nearly half of households over 75 are housing cost-burdened; where accessible housing remains elusive and undersupplied; and where more than 600,000 people (of whom more than half are single adults over age 50) are unhoused on any given day.
Compounding that are rising utility and insurance costs that drive the true cost of housing ever-higher, as changing climate conditions call for more heating and cooling and higher flood and/or homeowners insurance premiums. An effective and sustained housing response is long overdue. But it is even more urgent now, as we endeavor to build climate-resilient communities that better serve an aging nation.
What would it look like to build housing that better responds to both our growing climate crisis and our aging population?
First, local and regional leaders would seek to foster a greater diversity of housing choices, including smaller, attached units that reduce energy consumption while cultivating the social connectedness that research has shown is critical to survival in times of crisis. They would also double-down on efforts to retrofit existing homes and incentivize construction of new climate-resilient, affordable housing. Strategies like greater use of renewable energy and electrification can reduce or eliminate utility costs for residents and keep the power on during outages for those who require in-home medical equipment. Finally, leaders would assess climate risk facing areas where older adults reside with a clear-eyed view and then take steps to manage their risk, whether that means investing in green infrastructure to mitigate flooding or brush clearing to minimize wildfire risk. Leaders can also help drive down the cost of insurance premiums by investing in strategies that improve the risk profile for whole communities.
To build housing that better protects older adults in the face of a changing climate, consider these three strategies:
Strategy #1: Build More Small and Attached Homes that Reduce Energy Burden and Encourage Social Interaction.
For decades, roughly 60% of all housing units in the United States have been single-family detached homes,1 with the size of the homes growing larger over time and nearly doubling since 1975.2 But zoning changes and incentives for greater production of small, attached, and adjacent homes—which Dan Parolek has called “missing middle” housing—can advance climate goals and enhance resilience.
Not only do smaller and attached homes require less energy to heat and cool than single-family detached homes, but they also can facilitate more social interaction among residents in ways that reduce risk. Resilient housing strengthens social connections by providing opportunities for residents to bump into each other informally in ways that foster community. Whether through shared driveways, foyers, clustered mailboxes, or communal courtyards, smaller and attached housing encourages residents to watch out for one another during times of disaster.
Research shows that there is a protective effect at work in senior villages and communities (such as 55-plus or retirement communities) that fosters interaction, leading residents to more frequently check on neighbors during heat waves and ultimately delivering better health outcomes.3 Congregate and community-focused housing also delivers efficiencies in disaster relief efforts, making it easier to distribute supplies, establish cooling centers, or transport individuals as needed—rather than doing so in a decentralized, house-by-house manner.
A wave of local and state policy change to diversify housing stock is underway across the country, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, which effectively outlawed single-family housing in 2018 through the Minneapolis 2040 plan, to California, which now permits up to four housing units on parcels previously designated for only one home following passage in 2021 of the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are another way that communities can create accessible, resilient housing for older adults and people with disabilities. ADUs are particularly well suited to the needs of older adults because they provide opportunities for people to downsize in existing communities, to house family members or caregivers, or to generate rental income. ADUs and smaller homes can also meet “universal design” standards, with wider doorways, wider hallways, and kitchens designed to serve people in wheelchairs. Indeed, the single-story nature of many smaller units is ideal for those with mobility challenges, particularly when they thoughtfully integrate and account for accessibility and resilience needs.4 Following Hurricanes Harvey and Ike, students at Prairie View A&M University in Texas designed a prototype ADU, Prairie Dwelling 360/H House, that is capable of withstanding hurricane-level winds and generating renewable power on-site.5
Strategy #2: Provide Policy and Funding Support for Resilient Multifamily Housing.
Many communities would benefit from increased production of multifamily housing in addition to the “missing middle” housing previously described. Whether market based or subsidized—including through HUD’s Section 202 and Section 811 programs, which serve low-income older adults and people with disabilities, respectively—multifamily housing provides benefits for residents and the community. These higher-density developments use less energy and land than single-family homes, and offer sustainable, resilient, and decarbonized housing solutions that can pave the way to a more climate-resilient future for all.
At a minimum, local zoning must allow for the construction of multifamily housing. Also helpful are policy and funding incentives that support the integration of green and resilient features in affordable housing.6 Increasingly, large-scale affordable housing developers—such as National Housing Trust,7 Mercy Housing, and Winn Development—recognize the need to bring sustainability solutions to their residents in order to reduce energy cost burden, improve indoor air quality, and reduce climate risk for low-income households least able to rebound from disaster.
For example, one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated to affordable housing, Enterprise Community Partners, has developed a comprehensive set of standards to encourage the multifamily affordable housing industry to build more sustainably. The Enterprise Green Communities (EGC) and EGC Plus (EGC+) certifications use criteria to evaluate the sustainability and resilience of multifamily affordable buildings by assessing community engagement, location efficiency of the site, energy and water efficiency of the building, integration of sustainable and healthy materials, and much more. The criteria also encourage net-zero investments that significantly reduce energy use, as well as consideration and integration of climate-related hazard risks.8 Together with other third-party building standards—such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design); Passive House; and Energy Star Multifamily New Construction—these programs offer a clear road map to bring sustainability and resilience investments to residents of affordable multifamily homes.
Enterprise also supports a valuable online tool, “Climate Safe Housing: Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience,” to foster greater integration of climate resilience into multifamily housing, as a complement to its EGC certification.9 The online tool helps building owners identify and address climate risks in order to guide effective resilience investments. It thoughtfully identifies the level of “criticality” of a range of building functions—from access to potable water to resident elevator access to sump pumps—and offers solutions for each.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 offers unprecedented opportunity and funding for climate investment in affordable housing—if the programs are designed to allow it.10 The complex requirements of affordable multifamily housing merit a clear understanding at the federal and state levels of how new funding programs for energy efficiency, renewable energy, resilient retrofits, and more can best be integrated into the development or rehabilitation of affordable multifamily homes. Without an intentional focus to ensure that these resources can be accessed by owners and developers of affordable housing—including Section 202 and Section 811 properties for older adults and people with disabilities—there is a risk that this generational investment in climate resilience will bypass those best positioned to benefit from it.
Strategy #3: Map the Risk Exposure of Housing Across Communities and Implement Programs to Mitigate Risk in the Most Vulnerable Areas.
Efforts to map and manage the most climate-vulnerable locations are an essential strategy to reduce risk and build community-wide resilience. Steps such as these can reduce the cost of flood insurance available to area residents, which is particularly important for older adults who may lack adequate financial resources to insure their homes and who face rising insurance premiums.11
Federal agencies serve as the front line of such mapping efforts, although several private-market tools (such as Risk Factor) have begun to emerge as well. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps flood vulnerability in its effort to show minimum standards for floodplain management and identify the highest-risk areas so that appropriate rates can be established for the National Flood Insurance Program.
Increasingly, FEMA has encouraged homeowners and local officials to take action on the basis of flood map data through its comprehensive risk mapping, assessment, and planning effort.12 Actions can include elevating homes, acquiring and relocating homes in the floodplain, and ensuring that open public or private floodplain parcels will be kept free from development.13
But risks extend well beyond flooding. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched a new tool in July 2022 that allows communities to explore their vulnerability to a range of risks, including wildfires, cyclones, winter storms, and more, at the census tract level.14 NOAA joined forces with the National Drought Mitigation Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to map areas at risk of drought throughout the United States at the Drought.gov website.15
State, regional, and local land use planners should enhance resilience by taking steps to reduce or eliminate construction in areas subject to these risks. That may include withholding public infrastructure from such areas to discourage construction or utilizing public resilience funding to buy out landowners and homeowners and institute easements to prevent future development. These areas can also serve as focal points for more stringent building requirements—including fortified homes, elevated buildings, and stronger stormwater management practices—that directly mitigate risk for residents.
These efforts won’t result in an overnight shift in the risk that older adults bear in the face of climate change. But leaders who take these steps can be assured that they are incrementally and collectively positioning their communities to be far more resilient for our climate future by accounting for the housing needs of a growing—and vulnerable—segment of their population.
From Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation by Danielle Arigoni. Adapted from Chapter 4: Strategies for Age-Friendly Resilience. Copyright © 2023 Danielle Arigoni. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
1 U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Census of Housing Tables: Units in Structure,” 2020, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/dec/coh-units.html#:~:text=The%20types%20of%20homes%20people,period%2C%20in%20the%2060%20percents.
2 Statista, “Average Size of Floor Area in New Single-Family Houses Built for Sale in the United States from 1975 to 2021,” Statista Research Department, February 18, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/529371/floor-area-size-new-single-family-homes-usa/.
3 Dr. David Eisenman and Enrique Huerta, “Climate Chats #2—A Conversation on Extreme Heat: How You Can Adapt, and Help Combat,” webinar, AARP California, September 21, 2021, https://states.aarp.org/california/climatechats.
4 The “AARP HomeFit Guide” is a free and easy-to-use resource that supports the ability of renters, owners, and builders to incorporate design and functional elements that better enable people of all ages and abilities to live safely in their homes. That resource can be found at https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/housing/info-2020/homefit-guide.html.
5 Andrew Cohen, “PVAMU Architecture Students’ Winning Design Could Be a Game-Changer following Natural Disasters,” Houston Style Magazine, June 7, 2022, http://stylemagazine.com/news/2022/jun/07/pvamu-architecture-students-winning-design-could-b/.
6 The book Gray to Green Communities: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises by Dana L. Bourland (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2021) presents a thorough and in-depth analysis of the Green Communities criteria and the value of using them to create more resilient communities.
7 In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this book notes that she works for National Housing Trust.
8 Enterprise Community Partners, “Green Communities Criteria and Certification: The Standard for Sustainable Futures,” accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.greencommunitiesonline.org/.
9 Enterprise Community Partners, “Climate Safe Housing: Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience,” accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.climatesafehousing.org/.
10 Learn more about how National Housing Trust is working to advocate for the needs of multifamily affordable housing residents through Inflation Reduction Act implementation at https://nationalhousingtrust.org/.
11 These and are other actions taken by localities count toward the Community Rating System (CRS) score, which can make individual property owners within a community eligible for discounted flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. To learn more about the CRS, see U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System: A Local Official’s Guide to Saving Lives, Preventing Property Damage, and Reducing the Cost of Flood Insurance,” FEMA B 573/2018, https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_community-rating-system_local-guide-flood-insurance-2018.pdf. See Understanding Disaster Insurance: New Tools for a More Resilient Future by Carolyn Kousky (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2022) for a comprehensive and accessible analysis of how more effective insurance pricing and policy can support resilience.
12 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (Risk MAP),” accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.fema.gov/flood-maps/tools-resources/risk-map.
13. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Risk Rating 2.0 Is Equity in Action,” fact sheet, April 2021, accessed April 29, 2023, https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_rr-2.0-equity-action_0.pdf.
14 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information, “Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Disaster and Risk Mapping,” accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/billions/mapping.
15 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Integrated Drought Information System, “Data and Maps: U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM),” accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.drought.gov/data-maps-tools/us-drought-monitor.
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