The ILC-UK organised an event today on the sensitive topic of so-called ‘under-occupancy’ by older people. This is a topic we’ve been interested in for a while – we felt that our work on housing and planning had lead us to a contradiction between everyday industry talk of the need to ‘free up’ the ‘under-occupied’ homes of older people and Government agenda of keeping people independent at home for as long as possible.
Clearly, this recognition that the housing circumstances of the older population in mainstream housing must be taken seriously by Government policy is welcome. The home is a key defining environment in which – as we age – design and condition of our housing can come to hugely influence our chances of enjoying ‘active ageing’ in good health. Given future demographic trends, there has never been a more timely opportunity to invest in preventative, housing-based solutions to promote wellbeing. But what is the right balance between encouraging people to stay at home, and encouraging downsizing? The evidence was clear that ‘under-occupancy’ exists. Or better put, based on our current definitions (usually 2 or more bedrooms per household than ‘necessary’) 46% of households fell into that category. For older households (65+) this was 56%. Not a huge difference. ‘Under-occupancy’ is not really an age issue at all – it is a wealth issue. If we are going to hold a moral standpoint on using up too much space, it’s going to have to include all ages (i.e., the wealthy.) Talk of under-occupancy that focuses solely on older people is simply ageist. For ‘under-occupancy’ to exist as a concern, over crowding must also exist. And it does: in the UK today, 500,000 households live in over-crowded conditions. The impact of this on families is thought to be increased risk of ill-health, stress, family breakdowns and poor educational performance.
So what can we do about it? We could build more homes, but we are already losing the battle to meet grow in demand, to the tune of 40,000 households per year. The public is not yet ready to build on green field sites, and there simply aren’t enough brown field ones to meet demand. Furthermore, we could make sure those houses we do build are family sized homes, i.e. 3 or 4 bedrooms. But provision of these has fallen recent years, and the majority of new housing is now 1 or 2 bed flats. Affordable housing is such a dominant issue, (by which we usually mean affordable housing for young people) that this is unlikely to change much in the new future. What are our chances of encouraging downsizing? Fairly low, seemingly. Mobility is lowest in older age groups (around 2% per year) and most older people want to remain in their own homes, and rightly so.
But there is a margin – about 45% of people 50+ indicate they are open to the idea of a pre or post retirement move. Few actually do, but homeowners are most likely to consider it. This is good news as they are the majority of older people. Housing markets that offer the kind of suitable, downsized housing that will meet the aspirations of the relatively wealthy baby boomers are more likely to be successful. This means local authorities giving priority to older people’s specialist housing, earmarking suitable sites and defending them from competing concerns. No one should be coerced into moving. We all aspire to own our home, and live free from insecurity in later life. But positive measures to encourage downsizing would not interfere with that. Impartial advice and information services acting in the interests of older people could ensure those who want to move are helped to do so. Even small movements at the top of a housing chain will impact all the way down to the first time buyer. If nothing else, today’s debate showed that this is complex topic with competing view-points. The ILC-UK is keen to promote debate on the topic, so if you are keen to make a point, please do post a comment in response to my posting.