Four years ago, Emily Badger wrote in CityLab how the great senior sell-off could cause the next housing crisis, when all the aging boomers try to downsize and there aren’t enough buyers. Two years ago, I wrote that it won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars, also predicting trouble:
The oldest boomers are now just 68. But there are 78 million of them, and as they get older, the impact on suburbia will be profound. More and more of municipalities' taxes will be going to support them instead of schools and parks — Why? Because they vote a lot — while property values, and the tax base will decline as whole neighborhoods turn into senior citizens districts, with old Saturns rusting in the driveway like at my mother-in-law’s house. Transit costs will go through the roof as seniors demand services in low-density areas that cannot support it. The fact is, there is a major urban planning disaster staring us all in the face, which is going to seriously hit everyone young and old in about 10 years when the oldest boomers are 78. We have to prepare for it now.
So what has happened since? Not much. Over at CityLab they revisit the story and find that baby boomers are mostly staying put right now, hoping house prices will continue to rise. Many are still "under water" with houses worth less than their mortgages, or just treading water, where the house won’t sell for enough to retire on. So right now they're thinking about renovating. Arthur C. Nelson, who predicted the Great Senior Sell-off, says it's still coming, but later, in the mid to late 2020s.
“It’s not that Boomers are going to ‘age in place’,” says Nelson. “They’re going to be stuck in place, and they’re going to make the best of it.” Those who can afford it will remodel.
This is more in line with my understanding of the demographic; it will start getting messy when the boomers start hitting their late 70s. At some point, they're not going to have a choice but to sell. That also just might coincide with when the millennials’ kids are getting too big for the apartment and they're ready to move to the suburbs. The timing might just work out and avoid the urban planning disaster I've predicted.
On the other hand, there may well be a mismatch between what the boomers are selling and what millennials are buying. Jennifer Molinsky of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies tells CityLab:
“Millennials are likely to prioritize different features in their homes, such as greener materials or in-law suites,” says Molinsky. And according to the Harvard Joint Center’s projections, nearly 90 percent of those looking for homes in 2035 will be under 35 or 70 and over — and both groups tend to buy less square footage.
Yogi Berra was right when he said "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." But there's one thing we know for certain: There are 78 million baby boomers who are getting old fast, and what they do (and how they vote) pretty much drives every issue from housing to health care . Many are confused about what they want (Read: Study confirms that boomers are clueless) and are not prepared for what happens when boomers turn into seniors. Sara Joy Proppe looks at the problem in Strong Towns, after telling a story of giving a lift to a senior:
This story reflects the isolation felt among many of our senior population as they maneuver the built environment. By designing our cities for cars, and consequently neglecting our sidewalks, we have siloed our elders in several ways. Not only does an inability to drive confine many seniors to their homes, but corresponding busy roads and inhumane streetscapes add to the isolating effect by also limiting walkability.
We're sentencing literally tens of millions of people to this fate if we don’t start planning for this now.