The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 20, 2016

People and homes are aging quickly in our rural communities

Over the next 15 years, urban and rural communities in the United States will see their populations grow. But in rural areas, the increase will be mostly elderly citizens. And it’s not only the population that’s aging quickly in rural areas, according to our recent report. The housing stock is also much older than the housing in cities and is in urgent need of replacement, rehabilitation, or retrofitting.  

Population change by age group

The bottom line: we are not ready to house people safely and adequately in our rapidly aging rural communities.

Rural America is barely growing and rapidly aging

Though communities of all kinds will continue to experience population increases, the growth rate will decelerate in the coming years, with rural areas remaining at a much slower pace. Between 2010 and 2020, rural populations will grow by just 2 percent, while urban populations will increase by 9 percent; between 2020 and 2030; rural population growth will slow to just 1 percent, while urban populations will grow by 8 percent.

For decades, rural areas have been older than their urban counterparts. Between 2000 and 2010, 15 percent of the rural population was older than 65, compared with 13 percent in metro areas. Our analysis suggests that this gap will widen: by 2040, 25 percent of rural households will be 65 years or older, compared with only 20 percent in urban areas.

Population growth for older adults in metro, rural areas

What’s the problem with a rapidly aging population and older housing stock?

Slow population growth does not necessarily translate into decreased housing demand. While the average person today lives longer and more independently than in past generations, a house deteriorates with time, so new housing must be built or existing housing rehabilitated. In 2013, 63 percent of rural homes were at least 30 years old.

Is it better to build new homes or rehabilitate old ones? New construction or a new manufactured home can be more cost effective, but many older homes are well situated, structurally sound, and fairly large. These factors make them good candidates for upgrades in energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and modifications that might take up space but can support homeowners with physical and memory impairments.

The number of aging homes that are good candidates for rehabilitation is expanding much faster than new households throughout rural America, making this rehabilitation need urgent. Many households can make the investments themselves and installing energy-efficient systems can offer savings. And as demand grows for home retrofits, so will the experience of local contractors and the building industry more broadly, increasing innovation and decreasing cost.

Four changes we can make today

We can prepare to meet the needs of the growing rural elderly population in several ways, including the following:

  • Increasing labor force training: To rehabilitate the old housing stock in rural America to today’s standards, we can invest in training for the construction labor force.
  • Getting creative about capital: To ensure that capital is available for rehabilitation and not just new construction, we need new sources of financing and government subsidies. We can create a positive cycle in rehabilitating and upgrading buildings in rural America if government expenditures (either tax expenditures or direct subsidies) and regulations include the private sector and the government-sponsored enterprises to make more capital available for improving older homes and businesses. The greater availability of capital would likely increase labor demand, spark innovation, and drive down costs. These innovations would benefit new construction.
  • Encouraging seniors to move to smaller, newer homes. Government programs and private-sector actions could encourage seniors to move from large, older, single-family houses that no longer meet their needs into smaller, newer, more affordable homes. The homes they vacate could be rehabilitated for resale or rental to younger households, or removed from the housing supply in locations where supply exceeds demand.
  • Expanding home equity programs. Seniors whose homes are in good shape and whose mobility is not impaired would benefit from a wider array of programs and incentives to tap into home equity; these initiatives could connect seniors with incentives to update, improve, and maintain properties.

The entire country needs to prepare to adequately and affordably house the large number of aging baby boomers, but the loss of younger households in rural areas means rural areas will feel the effects first. Caring for our seniors requires us to renew planning and investment in rural areas.

Photo via Shutterstock

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