As boomers age, Northwest Austin seniors report challenges in finding affordable housing options

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Many in Austin’s housing industry say policy changes and creating new housing options are needed to address a growing need for more affordable living for seniors.

The Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Area is home to the second-fastest growing population of adults age 65 and older in the U.S. and is the fastest-growing population of pre-seniors, those ages 55-64, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Northwest Austin, the pre-senior demographic has grown by 25 percent, and the number of seniors has increased by 38 percent from 2011-16.

Because many seniors are on a fixed income, area organizations report some find it challenging to find housing options that fit their budgets. Some seniors, such as Nina Cavanaugh, might have too much income to qualify for low-income housing but cannot afford market-rate rents at apartments. They would like to have more options.

“[We need] affordable and smaller; we don’t need fancy,” she said. “I foresee this in U-shaped rows where we can keep an eye out for each other because that’s one of the things we do is monitor each other. Communal living with some private space—we’ve got it with some of these apartment complexes, but they’re too expensive.”

Range of options

In the early 2000s, Buckner Villas saw a change in tide of needs in senior housing options and began focusing on independent living, said Paul Clark, marketing director for the faith-based nonprofit’s North Austin campus.

Independent-living communities are geared toward seniors who do not need assisted living or medical care. In March, Buckner Villas completed a $29.8 million renovation and expansion to add 69 independent-living units.

“Independent living has become more popular because roughly 10 years ago the baby boomer generation began to retire,” Clark said. “Roughly 10,000 baby boomers retire every day, and that will continue for another 15 years or so.”

Buckner Villas has been in Austin for more than 50 years providing a full continuum of options depending on seniors’ needs, including assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care, Clark said.

“The idea is that all of our residents have the peace of mind that if and when their needs change, so do the services offered at the same community,” he said.

Because Buckner Villas has also seen an increase in demand for more affordable assisted living—costs are typically not covered by any insurance, Medicaid or Medicare plans—Clark said the community renovated its assisted-living units to offer more affordable units for adults who need assistance with personal care, such as bathing and dressing. Typically, assisted living is about $4,000 to $5,000 per month, and Clark said the new units are about $3,000 per month.

Several other independent-living communities for seniors have also recently opened or are under construction in Northwest Austin.

Greystar is building two new senior communities called Overture near The Domain and The Arboretum, opening in spring 2018 and spring 2019, respectively. The company previously told Community Impact Newspaper it targeted Austin because research showed seniors want to downsize or live closer to family while enjoying a maintenance-free home. But with prices starting at around $2,000 per month, some seniors are finding they cannot afford these luxury communities.

Affinity at Wells Branch is one community that aims to provide housing for seniors in the middle class, said Gina Pinnock, a marketing specialist for Inland Group.

“We want to help people understand it’s not low-income [housing]but that you can afford some awesome amenities,” she said.

San Diego-based Senior Resource Group is building its first senior community in Texas at The Domain, called Maravilla, opening in mid-2019, said Donna Thomas, SRG’s director of corporate communications. The community will not only have independent living but also assisted living and memory care to address residents’ changing needs.

Maravilla will have similar services to other independent-living communities, including a theater, restaurant, bistro, wellness center and beauty salon.

“Just because they’re getting older doesn’t mean they’re not interested in being active or involved,” Thomas said.

Search for affordable housing

Not all seniors desire to move into a facility geared for those in their age range. Many, like Cavanaugh, want to age in place or have their own space.

For the past 12 years, Cavanaugh has lived at Honeycomb RV Park on McNeil Drive. Although not geared toward seniors, she said the trailer park has many seniors because of its affordability.

She bought her trailer for $20,000 and paid it off two years ago. However, her lot lease has gone up for the last two years, and she worries about being able to afford future increases, she said.

Before she retired, Cavanaugh, who is 74, worked in social services and focused on helping others for decades. Her Social Security income is about $1,000 per month, and she receives $300 per month from a retirement plan. She also supplements her income by working part-time—a job that allows her to stay connected to her community.

“As long as I can work, I’m OK,” Cavanaugh said.

She has already begun looking for other housing options in the suburbs, including Leander, where the city allows tiny homes.

Joyce Hefner, director of housing and community services at Family Eldercare, said having a housing plan is key for seniors, especially those on a fixed income. The nonprofit receives calls weekly from seniors in a housing crisis.

Oftentimes she said seniors have to move outside of Austin to find affordable housing.

“People who move to outlying areas because it’s more affordable, they’re giving up some support services like the bus,” she said.

The U.S. Social Security Administration reports that retired workers on average receive $1,400 per month in Social Security benefits, and that represents about 33 percent of their income.

A limited income can make seniors at risk for being housing-burdened, said Annette Juba, deputy director of AGE of Central Texas, a nonprofit that provides caregiver resources and education.

For seniors who still live in their own homes but cannot remain alone, AGE has an adult day care for $65 per day that also provides social interaction vital to seniors’ physical health, Juba said.

“As much as people want to age in place, that leads to social isolation,” Juba said.

Seniors also contact AGE wanting to know more about affordable housing options, and Juba said some have reported a lack of available transportation options near housing they can afford or waiting lists for communities in which they want to live.

Residents can also help seniors in their neighborhood by creating opportunities for them to stay connected, she said.

“Make it easy for them to be involved and interact with others in the neighborhood,” Juba said. “Be the first to reach out. They still need support even if they are out in the community.”

Regulatory restrictions

Some seniors say they would love to have more housing options such as cohousing­—homes in a community that share common space—shared housing or tiny homes, but the city of Austin’s code makes having those options challenging.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said he hopes through the land development code rewrite process called CodeNEXT that the city could take advantage of some of those options.

“We need to do more to allow cottage-style housing and recognize it’s not just for students and young people,” he said.

Diana Deaton, who has worked in senior housing for decades, said she is championing shared housing or cohousing and working to create a network of seniors interested in participating.

“When you talk to seniors about what they want, they’re wanting to downsize into something smaller, [but]they still like the idea of a single-family home or duplex,” she said. “They’re describing the missing middle, but that’s what’s being taken out of the CodeNEXT, particularly in Northwest Austin.”

Missing middle housing is any medium-density housing that is typically a buffer to single-family neighborhoods. This would include duplexes; fourplexes; and accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, built on a single-family lot.

Mandy De Mayo, community development administrator at the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, said cooperatives could be another option to create more affordable housing for seniors, but the complicated legal structure can make it challenging to finance a project.

CodeNEXT could expand on opportunities for more housing seniors could afford, but she said the city needs to make it easier to build these options.

“It’s incumbent upon us to figure out how we provide diversity of housing types for all people,” De Mayo said. “All of us go through a variety of different stages. Our housing needs to have opportunities for all situations. I don’t think we necessarily do that good of a job right now.”

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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