“House-blockers?” Older people and the housing stock in an era of under-occupancy

Posted on

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. 

Ed Harding

7 thoughts on ““House-blockers?” Older people and the housing stock in an era of under-occupancy

  1. Would like to firstly say thank you for the excellent event. My role at ACE is Rented sheltered Housing Adviser, i deal with tenants, scheme mangers and relatives. what i would like to say is, HAs and LAs don’t make it easy for tenants to downsize. Many of the calls i get are from people waiting to be moved into smaller or sheltered housing. If a tenant decides to make the adjustment they should be supported in this decision and given advice and help. This should also include finacial help, as this is one of the biggest worries for older people. This should be the choice of the older person, the flats need to be bigger so that older people can accomodate family and friends if they wish. These are all things that younger people take for granted as a right, this should not end just because you reach 50. i’m in the main dealing with older people from an era of the 60s, they were encouraged to be rebels and protest about what they believe in. The policy on succession could be relaxed, where younger relatives are caring for an older relative and many of them give up careers etc to do this. We also have a problem with the right to buy asset heavy but no income, there could be an argument for HAs and LAs buying back these properties and putting the older person into suitble accomodation private or rented, therefore freeing up larger properties.

  2. Jay Ginn said:

    It was reassuring to hear several speakers stress older people’s right to have a choice and to be free from any coercion to move away from home and familiar surroundings.

    However, stealth coercion to move is already operating, through the escalating cost of council tax. A local informal survey showed that pensioners were paying between 10-20% of their income in council tax, despite living in modest homes, ie not underoccupying. Because council tax relates (theoretically) to property prices, a small home in London area can incur a council tax that is unaffordable for those living on state pensions.

  3. Yong Lee said:

    If 45% of those aged 50+ are open to the idea of downsizing, but few actually do, to me, this indicates a poor choice of housing currently on offer. This has to change.

    In Kent*, the number of retired one-person households is expected to increase from 85,000 (in 2001) to 105,600 (by 2021)#. This is an increase of 20,600 households (+24%) over 20 years. That is an equivalent of about four years of house-building for this county at current rates. If these units were to be generous, well designed, attractive Extracare flats that were well located (for amenities and user-friendly public transport), it would offer a real alternative to remaining in isolated, older houses that require routine, expensive maintenance.

    Suitable housing is only a tool that will keep older people independent for longer. We also need the complementary financial structures in place to enable the move to be profitable for the individual and kin’s long term plans. I think the debate should not be about down-sizing but re-sizing. For me, it is not about space and under-occupancy, but it is about the ability to cope with stairs, the need to host large family gatherings or still being able to drive down to the shops.

    Finally, at a recent visit to a flagship Extracare scheme in Gateshead, a couple’s feedback is that they are enjoying their new tenancy in (their words) “Hilton for the OAPs”.

    * views represented are writer’s own
    # Source: Kent & Medway Structure Plan


    Elderflowers Projects Co. has very recently published a report which is concerned with the housing problems of older people, and proposes one solution which we call the Elderflowers Model.

    Our starting point was the ageing of the population and the associated increase in under-occupation. Our analysis of data from the Survey of English Housing shows that there is a clear link between age and under-occupation; only 30% of households where the household reference person is aged 45-49 under-occupy, this rises to 40% for the age group 50-54, to 51% for the age group 55-59, to 55% for the age group 60-64; from 65 upwards the level of under-occupancy stabilises at around 56% (you quote this figure in your posting). It is easy to explain this relationship in terms of the life cycle, a classic family (parents + children) move into a home which meets their needs in terms of space. Over the years the children grow up and move away, and eventually there is a single person (normally a widow) living in a home that was large enough for a whole family. With rising life expectancy under-occupation can continue for many years and this is clearly not a good use of the housing stock. We maintain that increasing under-occupancy, driven by the ageing of the population, has contributed to the current housing problem. In particular in the social sector it has contributed to overcrowding since expanding families find it difficult to move into larger homes within the social sector: where larger homes in the social sector have not been sold under “right to buy” they are often under-occupied by elderly households who have little incentive to move to smaller homes.

    In our Report we argue that in many cases under-occupancy persists because there is a lack of suitable housing available to active older people. They do not qualify for, and would not wish to enter, traditional public sector housing for elderly people, which is intended for those with substantial care needs. On the other hand private sector housing schemes (e.g. retirement villages) tend to cater for people whose income is high enough to pay for costly services.

    We also argue that many of the problems characteristic of old people are linked to their housing. By continuing to live in over-large homes that they can no longer afford to maintain and heat, they often become “housing rich and income poor”. Downsizing would bring financial benefits such as lower fuel bills and Council Tax, and in the case of home owners would release equity which can be invested to provide additional income. This is a better option for owners than continuing to live in the original home and entering into a reversion scheme.

    The ability of older households to move declines with age so in our report we argue that “young old” people should be encouraged to move into more suitable housing in their own best interests, as well as those of society generally. It is recognised however that even “young old” people are unlikely to move unless they are offered a package which is sufficiently attractive to overcome a natural tendency to try and stay put in a much loved home.

    In the report we develop the Elderflowers Model of housing which is an innovative combination of features that exist in other types of housing. We seek to break the traditional automatic linkage between being “elderly” and needing to be “cared for”. The housing is intended for active elderly people, with virtually no care needs, and with low to medium incomes (many of whom will still be working) with an age range starting as young as 50 i.e. the target group comprises the great majority of those in the age group 50-70. The aim is to offer high quality purpose built accommodation, constructed to generous space standards together with communal facilities and commercial facilities.

    The housing units would be mainly for owner occupiers but developments would also include some affordable housing in the form of Housing Association rental and shared ownership properties. To reflect their own competence and wish for independence, the residents would collectively assume responsibility for the management of the development; this would also have the advantage of reducing service charges.

    We believe that this type of development can provide a contribution to a mixed and sustainable community. Active older people tend to play a valuable role in the community, and by locating these developments centrally they can contribute to maintaining a balanced community.

    Our report will shortly be available online at our website
    in the meantime printed copies can be obtained from the company.

  5. Heather Cadbury said:

    Since I come from a nursing background and have been particularly interested in self care for chronic conditions, I approach the above question as an issue of changing attitudes. It may be interesting to note that many self care packages for chronic disorders have higher success rates in the US than in this country. However, within the UK, self care seems to be gaining a higher profile for the middle classes. So down sizing may in time become a more popular move.

    The points raised already about needing space for visitors and maybe the care of grandchildren are all very relevent issues and oh yes of course …the need for a room for the computer or hobbies. Interestingly most surveys suggest that the new era of retired do not want support from their children. So down sizing may be a logical step that many may start to take in the future. However, having room for visitors, thus providing a two way relationship as opposed to a dependent one would I imagine for most be an acceptable form of support.

    Evidence also suggest that once the elderly need to move it is probably too late. Subsequent moves are unlikely to provide informal support that may have been available within a neighbourhood where they have lived for many years.

    I suspect that all the usual routes of information for example education, novels, films, newspaper articles and life’s experience will slowly change attitudes … if indeed we are going down the road of self care. However, this also requires a change of attitudes from the professionals. In my experience health care professionals are still interested in being in charge rather than facilitating life styles and independence.

    Policy may well be most effective within society if it uses initiatives that make housing much more flexible, and wheel chair friendly. Which means not just the size of doors and access, but the design of kitchens and bathrooms. Finally I would just like to agree with others who suggested that any new developments should not just provide housing for the elderly or just the disabled, community living works best when there is a mix of people.

  6. Heather Cadbury is quite correct in pointing out that once the elderly need to move it is probably too late. This is why the approach adopted by Elderflowers in their recent report focuses on the “young old” who are active and reasonably fit and much more capable of moving. In addition moving at a younger age removes all of those years of under-occupation in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s.

    Elderflowers is also in favour of mixed communities and therefore proposes siting its developments in the centre of towns where the residents can form a valuable part of a wider community, not living segregated behind high walls and heavy security.

    Yong Lee pointed out that the choice of housing available to downsize to is poor, and that this is one of the reasons so few older people downsize. The solution is to provide suitable housing at an affordable price.

  7. Jennifer Kitson said:

    I agree that the “young old” need to be specifically targetted to slow down the current trend of staying put and therefore blocking up the housing supply for younger generations with dependents. However, with rising life expectancy, how straightforward will it be to encourage people from the age of 50 to start seriously planning for their (very) old age? Surely this will be especially difficult considering the Government’s Active Ageing initiatives that seem to encourage people to avoid the fact of ageing for as long as possible.

    I am also interested in how popular the Elderflowers project’s developments are considering they are located in town centres and demographic trends show that on retiring, many people relocate to more rural locations (HM Treasury: 2005)?

    I am currently undertaking a masters dissertation on the role Continued Care Retirement Communities (CCRC’s) can play in offering older people more choice in terms of housing, and how the planning system can faciliate these. Such schemes appear to offer the independence, choice and well-being that the Government put forward as the key elements contributing to a high quality of life among older people, but they still entail leaving the family home. CCRC’s also appear to offer older owner-occupiers more tenure options. If you would like to offer any opinions on this subject, please contact me on j.kitson@ucl.ac.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>