Nearing 70 years old, Mary McPeak had long had a stable home in Greater Boston. But after a breakup four years ago, she suddenly found herself unmoored, couch-surfing at friends’ homes or renting a room while she faced years-long wait lists for affordable senior housing.
Then a break: McPeak “won the lottery,” figuratively and quite literally, when she was selected in 2020 by lottery for a new senior housing complex, the Brown Family House in Brookline run by 2Life Communities.
“It was sheer, blind, ridiculous luck,” said McPeak, now 73. The retired secretary has lived in her subsidized one-bedroom apartment for nearly three years now. “It was so lucky, it was enough to believe in God.”
Such is the state of affordable housing for seniors in Massachusetts, where it seemingly takes divine intervention to find a home. In an inventory-starved market, the graying population faces some of the steepest hurdles in the country to secure an affordable place. So dire is the situation, some argue, seniors should be prioritized in the state’s response to the wider-ranging housing crisis.
The dilemma has many faces. There are home-owning seniors who want to downsize but are otherwise stuck because the smaller homes they want are scarce and cost as much, if not more, than their current ones. With fixed incomes, some retirees can’t keep up with rising property taxes. Others are slowly being priced out of rentals they’ve lived in for years, if not decades.
And when they begin looking, they find few good options: independent living complexes with price tags that are out of reach for many, or subsidized housing with wait lists that stretch three years, five years, or longer.
For single seniors and couples who rent, Massachusetts is already the most expensive state in which to live independently, according to a study by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Those high costs help fuel another dire reality: Older adults living alone here are more likely to be unable to afford basic needs than those in any other state.
As baby boomers age into retirement, that cohort and its needs keep expanding. In Massachusetts, roughly 1.2 million people were 65 and older in 2020, a jump of more than one-third from a decade earlier.
“That need is absolutely growing,” said Elissa Sherman, president of the trade group LeadingAge Massachusetts. “Developing senior housing is not cheap. We need public investment in order to do that.”
It may also be the place to start, some lawmakers and senior advocates argue. Incentivizing construction of senior housing will not only help prevent elderly homelessness, supporters contend, it could help push more single-family homes onto the market by allowing seniors to move into smaller homes they can afford. About 70 percent of people 65 and older in Massachusetts are homeowners, according to the Urban Institute.
That, in theory, could help boost badly needed supply for younger families looking to buy a home, which in turn then frees up rentals for young professionals. Massachusetts policy makers can create “a lot more ripples when we address senior housing,” said state Representative Susannah Whipps.
“We start with the top and work down,” said Whipps, an independent from Athol, who argued that in swaths of Central and Western Massachusetts, where school enrollment is declining and communities are hungry for a younger workforce, building more housing for seniors could help address a variety of needs.
Seniors “don’t want to leave their communities,” she said. “They want to age in place. But how do we do it in an affordable way?”
That’s not the only question facing policy makers. The housing crunch touches all corners, with one state report estimating the state needs 200,000 additional housing units by 2030 to help satisfy demand among all ages, including those locked out of home ownership by steep prices and higher interest rates.
Building senior housing is a critical part of the response, said Ed Augustus, the housing secretary under Governor Maura Healey. But there’s also no “silver bullet,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say there is consensus that if you do this one thing, it unlocks all sorts of housing,” he said, before turning to a baseball analogy. “It’s a lot of singles, doubles, triples that collectively help expedite production.”
Choosing what type of housing to incentivize also requires balance. Local officials and residents across Greater Boston have regularly fretted that new development overtaxes their towns with more children in their schools, more cars on their roads, and more demand on fire or police services.
That’s made senior housing an easier sell to local voters. It tends to be less dense than family housing — so fewer people move in — and, residents argue, local schools (or taxpayers) are less likely to absorb additional students, according to a 2022 Boston Foundation report examining housing in Greater Boston. And yes, there is a need for more of it, but building age-restricted subsidized housing while limiting other types of affordable housing “can cause a mismatch” between what’s available and who may need it most, the report warned.
It pointed to an imbalance in communities such as Winchester, where almost all of the subsidized housing at that point — more than 80 percent — was restricted to senior citizens.
“That’s a town sending this signal: They have these world-class schools, but . . . you as a community are creating schools that are only for people above a certain income level,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, a professor of political science at Boston University and coauthor of the report.
The argument that simply building more senior housing can create a trickle-down effect also risks being exclusionary in practice, Einstein said. “It does end up feeling like this zero-sum game,” she said. “If you have a limited amount of funding, what is the population you’re going to prioritize?”
How exactly the state should approach helping seniors also isn’t cut and dried. The focus, said state Senator Lydia Edwards, should be on low-income seniors and renters, many of whom don’t have the financial flexibility to keep up with rising costs, and helping keep them in their homes.
She pointed to pursuing tax relief measures or creating incentives for landlords to rent to seniors.
“I know the stereotype is we live in a very rich senior market. That has not been my lived experience,” said Edwards, an East Boston Democrat and cochair of the Legislature’s housing committee. There is not enough housing generally, she said, but seniors are especially vulnerable because many are on fixed incomes. “The scariest case is when a senior has no options.”
Seniors who rent often face a heavy financial strain. Generally, people who pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered “cost-burdened.” Among renters 80 and older in the Boston metropolitan area, three out of five pay more than that, said Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the Housing an Aging Society Program at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. One of five pays more than half, she said.
“Much of the assisted living [that’s available], and many of the retirement communities are for higher income people,” Molinsky said. “People in the middle really have very little choice if they want to move to a [new] place.”
That can also include people who may have been solidly in the middle class during their working years but then fall into poverty as they age, said Lizbeth Heyer, interim chief executive of 2Life Communities, the Brighton-based senior housing developer.
“In terms of a moral imperative, it’s despicable to think we can’t do better,” she said. “We’re not looking ahead where the demographics are going . . . and heading off a looming crisis of elder homelessness. It’s despicable.”
Even at 2Life Communities, which broke ground on a new 68 apartment-building in Waltham just last month, demand far outstrips what it can build. Company officials estimate they have more than 7,600 applicants for its properties, with wait lists starting at three years for a studio at its Brighton campus; the wait for a two-bedroom could be 10 years.
Across the Greater Boston region, wait lists as long as five years can be commonplace, advocates and seniors say.
“It’s almost pointless at that stage. Let’s face it, who knows where we’re going to be in five years,” said Catherine, a senior who lives in Waltham with her sister, Mary, and asked to be identified by only her first name.
They’ve lived in their current two-floor apartment for 38 years, but they need single-level living as they age and the rising rent isn’t helping. They’re even willing to move into a one-bedroom place, if it means finding a home they can afford.
“Because we have to move,” she said.