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Aging Boomers could have huge impact on suburbs

There are about 1.5 million Baby Boomers in Greater Washington, representing 26 percent of its population. The housing choices of these individuals will have a profound effect on the region over the next 30 years. Where do they live now, and where will they live in the future?

Photo by LancerE on Flickr.

Where do Boomers live today?

The Baby Boom generation is defined as those born between the years of 1946 and 1964, The vast majority of Boomers in the Washington area are homeowners: as of 2010, there were about 823,000 households in the region with a Baby Boomer householder, 629,000 or 76% of which own their homes.

Boomer homeownership rates by jurisdiction. All images by the author unless noted.

While Boomers account for 26 percent of the region's population, they make up 47 percent of all homeowners. In Calvert, Fairfax, and Fauquier counties, Boomers make up more than half of all homeowner households, and slightly less than half in Stafford, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties. The concentration of Boomer homeowners was lowest in close-in jurisdictions like DC, Arlington, and Alexandria, and in Loudoun County, where younger homeowners drive most growth.

Boomers as share of homeowners by jurisdiction.

More specifically, Boomer homeowners can be found in affluent areas located outside the Beltway dominated by large-lot, single-family housing units. Over 60 percent of homeowners are Boomers in places like Brookeville in Montgomery County, Oakton in Fairfax County, and Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County. Less affluent inner suburban areas like Annandale and Bladensburg also have high concentrations of Boomer homeowners.

Boomer homeowner share by Census tract.

Where will they live in the future?

According to several national research studies, most Boomers plan to stay exactly where they are, as long as they can. A 2011 study by AARP found that 84 percent of Boomers want to stay in their current homes. A 2010 survey by retirement community developer Del Webb found that 64 percent of Boomers had not even thought about where they will live during retirement.

Due to the effects of the Great Recession, many Boomers plan to postpone retirement and remain in their current homes. In 1996, Del Webb found that 85 percent of 50 year olds surveyed thought they would be financially prepared to retire by the age of 65. In a 2010 survey of the same group, now 64, only 46 percent thought they would ever be able to retire.

But many aging Boomers won't be able to stay put. AARP found that 41 percent of Boomers surveyed thought they would always be in good health, and 35 percent expect to always be able to drive their own cars. But the National Association of Home Builders' "Characteristics of Home Buyers" report suggests that health issues will increasingly determine Boomers' housing choices, especially after age 75.

If Boomers do begin to move from their single-family houses in the suburbs in large numbers, where will they go? The Del Webb survey found that 56 percent of those who planned to leave their homes would move out of state, while the remaining 44 percent planned to stay local. This could mean a smaller home in the same suburban community, a retirement community or continuing care facility, or, as many have suggested, an apartment or condo in a more urban environment.

However, even those who suggest that Boomers will embrace city life concede that this only a "mini-trend" at this point. In all likelihood, most Boomer homeowners in the Washington metro area will stay put and continue to live in their single-family houses in the suburbs for at least the next 10 to 20 years. While this stability may appear to be a positive thing, it actually raises several key concerns about the future.

What will happen to the areas where they are currently concentrated?

Boomers who "age in place" will create major spillover effects for the suburban communities where they first moved to raise families.

Suburban jurisdictions will need to address the reality of having large elderly populations. If large numbers of Boomers do choose to age in place, the neighborhoods that once served as havens for families with children will suddenly become naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs).

This will drive increased needs for public services for the elderly, including recreational and social service programs, demand for paratransit for those who live in car-dependent areas but are not able to drive, and declining school enrollments. Perhaps more importantly, political priorities will shift, as older voters are more likely to advocate for lower taxes instead of making investments in infrastructure, schools, or parks.

Aging homeowners will struggle to maintain their properties. As the oldest Boomers reach 75, most will have to rely on retirement income and savings even as their health care costs increase. As a result, investment in the upkeep and maintenance on aging houses will become more difficult for many homeowners to afford.

This will be a particular issue in older suburbs where income levels tend to be lower and houses require more upkeep. Neglect of homes may become widespread in these areas, leading to permanent decline.

Boomers will shut Millennials out. The Millennial generation, currently aged between 15 and 35, is just starting to reach prime homebuying age. The conventional wisdom is that Millennials will reject the values of their Boomer parents and rent smaller units in urban environments.

While that may be true today, a 2011 Urban Land Institute study generated two contrary conclusions. First, three-quarters of older Millennials (those currently aged 28-35) expected to buy a home within five years. Second, 82 percent of all Millennials expected to live in a single-family detached house in five years.

Assuming that at least some Millennials do want to buy houses, there are few affordable options for them. The region's median home price in July 2013 was $425,000, and the median price for a single-family home was $541,750.

The ULI study found that the median income level for Millennials with full-time jobs was less than $50,000. Though the income level for Millennials in this region is undoubtedly higher, few Millennials can afford new single-family homes anywhere in the area. So long as Boomers stay put in their homes, the supply of existing homes will be limited, making it more difficult for younger buyers to find places to live.

The crash could be swift and painful. In 2040, just 27 years from now, the age range of the Baby Boom generation will be from 76 to 94. By that time, there will obviously no longer be 1.5 million Boomers living in metro Washington, and there will certainly not be 629,000 Boomer homeowners. Twenty years later, in 2060, all but the hardiest of Boomers will have passed away.

While Boomers seem to be committed to living in their suburban homes, at some point age and health will take their toll. If Boomers do intend to stay in their homes for the duration, their eventual departures from their homes and neighborhoods will likely occur under difficult circumstances. Most will either leave quickly due to health issues, or their surviving family members will need to sell their homes after they are gone.

As difficult as it may be to consider, the years from 2030 to 2050 will bring wholesale changes to the communities where Boomers are now living. As discussed above, many Boomers will have let their homes fall into disrepair by that point, so many of the stable suburban neighborhoods they currently inhabit are likely to decline. Local governments around the region need to understand and plan for these trends now so they do not have to face very difficult problems down the road.

David Versel is a Senior Research Associate with the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis. 


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Another issue this raises is road design. The number of licensed drivers older than 90 in Maryland increased from 6000 in 2000 to 14,000 in 2012. As boomers age in place in homes that are only reachable by car, the number of older drivers on the roads will increase sharply. Current highway designs assume that drivers have fast reflexes and can act quickly when they see pedestrians, stopped cars, etc. Roads will need to be redesigned with slower speeds, easier-to-read signage, and less complicated signaling and traffic patterns so that 90-year-olds can drive safely on them.

by Ben Ross on Aug 28, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

An excellent piece. Very informative.

by tmt on Aug 28, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

The end game apocalyptic scenario of BB's leaving their suburban homes "under difficult circumstances," and their homes in disrepair, is not new or unique.

I grew up in a post-war, New England Levittown-style neighborhood, that I still visit because of family. The WWII and Korean War generations that bought these home have been giving way for years. The circumstances, of course, are always difficult. For many, the exit from home ownership is a straight path to ER or a nursing home. Those who head off to Florida or South Carolina are a minority. Many of these homes remain in good repair, but not necessarily updated.

When someone passes, usually a big dumpster appears within weeks, and the place is gutted, repaired, sold. New families move in. The transition manages itself. I don't see why this will be any different for the BB generation, despite their numbers, as long as the regional economy offers jobs and opportunity.

by kob on Aug 28, 2013 10:55 am • linkreport

I think the saving grace is that as big as the BB were, the Millenials are just as numerous. There won't be a shortage of buyers.

Unfortunately for the economy as a whole, there also won't be a huge shortage of housing - so while you might see a boom in renovations, you won't likely ever see a building boom like we had from the 50s-90s (increasingly moving outward as the boomers became increasingly rich moving up their careers, and as their children needed housing too.)

by TomA on Aug 28, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

At the individual level, a lot has to do with options (e.g., moving to an apartment/condo, which many elderly do, esp. after a spouse dies) and whether family are close-by. I recently attended a class reunion where caring for elderly parents was a major topic of conversation. Even those who were within walking distance of shopping and had at least some public transit access had very limited real mobility (tiring easily, needing to have children or grandchildren help them shop, run errands, etc.). But the presence of family mitigates this, and the boomer era suburb where I grew-up obviously has an enormous number of people living like this (probably a plurality if not majority of my old neighbors).

There long have been various forms of naturally occurring retirement communities, which is ignored here. Some are rather carbound, like the big apartment complexes around Mass Ave NW in upper NW, while others are very well connected to services and transit (e.g., Van Ness). There always have been places like this in more stereotypical, carbound suburbs--relatives of mine have lived in such places and various forms of retirement housing have gone into suburban areas. A likely scenario is that single and widowed elderly will leave their single family homes and cycle through these places as they have for decades (Connecticut Avenue has been hosting people's grandparents almost from the beginning). Another safety valve is moving away to be near children---DC's population is less rooted in terms of families and a generation or two of people who've grown-up here often have stayed elsewhere because of the higher cost of living in the DC area. There's also a small group that retires in the periphery or just outside the area in the Eastern Shore or near the Shenandoah--state department and military service pubs actively promote real estate in those areas for retirement.

The doomsday-type scenario here may be more of an issue for less well-off people than for the usual run of secure middle class professionals, although even there, mitigating circumstances may exist. It's evident in middle income parts of DC where people bought during the white flight era and for years had little equity in their homes. ---Brightwood, Riggs Park, and many other neighborhoods are like this. Now, they probably get by on federal pensions, or some mix of social security and savings/401K, but hold onto their houses. Boomers in this economic position probably have less income security and will be squeezed in terms of rental options (marginal neighborhoods or less practical areas further out). If they have family in the area, their situation will be mitigated and often family in that economic strata windup living in the house.

Any effort to model the future needs to consider these various scenarios, the many patterns of succession, the social capital available to sustain people in carbound suburbia and the limitations turning scenarios into mathematical models. Further, intentions related to complex social behavior like relocation/migration are terrible predictors and unstable over time (as is evident in the surveys described here), which is a polite social scientist way of saying they're pretty useless. Still, they're "expected" and consumers of data like them, which is why migration researchers collect them.

by Rich on Aug 28, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

I don't understand why the assumption is that nearly all baby boomers will stay in their dilapidated homes that they are unable to afford or maintain.

Are we also assuming that every baby boomer will be incapable of moving? Especially given the prices for homes in this area, the incentive to cash out and move into a more manageable place is high. The main problem I see is a lack of those smaller, more manageable places to move to.

by Adam L on Aug 28, 2013 11:41 am • linkreport

An anecdote comes to mind that I think is relevant. During the height of BB birth rate, the post WWII-Korean community, that I noted earlier, could not build elementary schools fast enough to meet the population explosion. But this town, adopting to the demographic changes in the past decades, has since converted one of these elementary schools into assisted living senior housing. The former school has plenty of land for expansion. It has given people an opportunity to remain in their communities.

by kob on Aug 28, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

Looking forward to houses becoming more affordable as boomers move out.

by Chris S. on Aug 28, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

Thank you David for a thoughtful piece. It looks like a good topic for the Council of Governments to research and discuss.

I would like to see more attention to the benefits of creating accessible apartments and condos near services in the suburbs (mainly in the existing commercial corridors) as an option for seniors to downsize while staying in their community. There's also the option of accessory dwelling units where the children/grandchildren move into the main house and the parents move into a smaller cottage on site -- provided our zoning laws are updated to allow for this feature that once marked pre-WWII neighborhoods. It won't be workable in some neighborhoods, but it's worth studying.

by Stewart Schwartz on Aug 28, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

I've been wondering if we will see a return to adult group housing situations, essentially replicating what we see with a lot of younger people sharing a house in the city. Especially if there are no adult children or people don't wish to relocate far, this might be a good option. As well as saving money, it combats isolation and makes it more reasonable to provide small group medical care and social services. I think cities and towns should push this model. One issue would be providing enough first floor/ handicapped access in older dwellings but I think even retrofitting older homes to have and elevator and ADA compliant access might not be too costly if shared among say 6 - 8 people. Most of all this would be great for people that have already lost a partner but dont like the idea of retirement homes.

by BTA on Aug 28, 2013 3:23 pm • linkreport

Wow, David, you hit the hammer on the head.

I'm a boomer, born in 1956 and live in Groveton, a homeowner, so many of the things discussed apply to folks like my wife and I.

Suddenly, I feel older and part of a group that is having to face up to some cold hard facts.

I try to stay and shape. I just wrote a book and feel like I am hitting a stride. I want to be in shape when I am 75.

But old man time will catch up, and I think about what we will do.
We boomers collected a lot of junk and someone will have to deal with it, if we don't. You see it already, old cars covered up and left to rot. In some cases, some houses have as many as six or more cars, and in some cases, RVs are left to rust. (Not us!)

Our neighborhood has good upkeep but some around here don't. It is painful to see after living all my life as a proud boomer. The bill is coming due.

Politically, don't worry. We are dye-in-the-wool liberals. I would pay 50% tax to stay on the left hand side of the aisle.

What worries me is the overweight boomers. It will tax our systems. I'm doing ok, thankfully (takes a lot of will power!)

We thought about moving to a more urban locale but it seems we are suburban creatures. We live going into the city but could not live there, although we should.

If there is anything we can do to help with this pending crisis, let me know. I will try and help.

by Jay Roberts on Aug 28, 2013 4:48 pm • linkreport

I already have seen this in my parents who are not Boomers, but rather members of the Silent Generation (1925-1945). They live in a suburban home that is far too big for their needs, surrounded by their largely useless and unsellable accumulation. They still get around, but their mobility is indeed decreasing, and if it weren't for the availability of grocery delivery and such, they'd be in even worse straits. Neither will retire because they're too afraid of going bust, but their way of life is not sustainable.

I think that by-and-large you will find that people stay put not just because they can't see better options, but because at this stage in their lives, they can't afford them either.

by Craig on Aug 28, 2013 5:37 pm • linkreport

The difference is that as Boomers leave the suburbs for whatever reason, younger generations won't be moving into those suburban split levels in the same number for numerous reasons. They don't have as many children, if any, and want to live closer in.

by Tom Coumaris on Aug 28, 2013 9:35 pm • linkreport

This is a good detailed review of aging in the Washington suburbs. The growing mismatch between human needs and our built environment is clear...the question is how will we fill the gaps? Likely with a patchwork of services and changes. Among them, people living in older homes will find they need to adapt their surroundings or run the risk of potentially life-changing accidents...let alone increasing difficulty carrying out daily activities. The more people educate themselves about their options, the more successful they can be about prolonging their independence. Grab bars, for example, should signal "independence" rather than "disability." As well, getting things within easy reach in the kitchen, and decorating for accessibility and to support fading vision and hearing, are simple changes. We can challenge ourselves to do a little something every week, the same way that we exercise (a big source of independence). -- Rachel Adelson, author, Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style

by Rachel Adelson on Aug 29, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

As a millenial in my 20s who owns a condo, I can say that money isn't the reason that I won't be moving outside the beltway into a detached single family home. I grew up with that lifestyle, albeit in a metro with much less traffic and more nature, and much prefer living a walkable lifestyle. I would much rather leave the DC metro area than move outside of the beltway, and I'm not alone in my generation.

Most of the jobs that I would be interested in are in DC, Arlington and to a lessor extent Bethesda and Silver Spring. I don't have any interest in a monster car commute each day. I don't have any interest in working in an office park where I can't get anywhere on my breaks.

Money isn't the reason I won't be buying that detached single family home way out in the suburbs. It'll be lifestyle and quality of life. I want to walk places. I want to have access to jobs, arts, restaurants and things to do.

Perhaps one day I'll have a townhouse near a metro stop (a housing type in far too short of supply) or even a single family home by a metro stop. And I'll gladly trade lots of square footage for location.

by Patrick Thornton on Aug 29, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

I am an almost 70 year old in a big house in Rockville. We enjoy our "largely useless and unsellable accumulation." Although we will get rid of lots of stuff, we still need adequate room. The apartments now being built in DC (and I've looked at a lot of them) are for people without stuff. Anything big enough for us, some stuff and a guest room for visiting grandchildren anywhere near a metro stop, a library and/or a grocery store is currently unaffordable. Until DC and Bethesda and Silver Spring have more usable, We can't make the transition now--we'll have to wait 10-15 years and go straight to assisted living.

by JLo on Aug 31, 2013 3:20 pm • linkreport

that's "usable and affordable apts."

by JLo on Aug 31, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

I love the idea of multi-generational households and accessory dwellings, but the relatively low wealth of Millennials makes the financials difficult. If Millennials can't afford to buy a big SFH and convert it or add an ADU for their parents, I guess the parents would have to take on a disproportionate share of the downpayment and/or mortgage, essentially subsidizing the living costs of their kids. Some would happily do so, but others wouldn't - or couldn't. Then again, maybe the values of such homes will decline enough to put them within reach.

by Amanda Hurley on Mar 21, 2016 10:47 pm • linkreport

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