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New England’s population is graying, but its homes are less “aging-ready” than rest of U.S.

New home construction in Portsmouth
Dan Tuohy
New home construction in Portsmouth. Officials estimate that New Hampshire is currently short of nearly 24,000 housing units, and that in the next two decades, it will need a total of 90,000 additional units.

Housing for New England’s seniors is in short supply, and could worsen as the region’s population ages. According to a report released this month by the US Census Bureau, only about 20 percent of New England homes meet basic standards for seniors: a step-free entryway and a bedroom and full bathroom on the entry level. In New Hampshire, 20 percent of the population is over 65, and that number is expected to increase significantly over the next several decades.

The shortage of aging-ready homes is part of a broader housing crisis in the region. Officials estimate that the state is currently short of nearly 24,000 housing units, and that in the next two decades, it will need a total of 90,000 additional units. A 2022 report by the New Hampshire Commission on Aging noted housing and transportation as top concerns for seniors, and it pointed to affordable housing as a major factor in recruiting and retaining the workforce required to take care of New Hampshire's aging population.

“There's a mismatch on a number of levels between the existing housing stock and the needs of the population,” says Rob Dapice, executive director of New Hampshire Housing.

Dapice notes that the housing needs of people over 65 vary widely; many are still working, and some are the primary caretakers of grandchildren who need access to school and other services. Some may be able to age in place with modest renovations, like modifying the bathroom or installing slip-resistant flooring. Others may require a live-in aid.

But zoning regulations make preparing for these changes difficult, says Dapice. Some seniors who want to split their existing homes into multiple apartments, to downsize and generate income, are encountering zoning restrictions. And Dapice says not enough communities in New Hampshire allow construction of small lot, single-family homes that are suitable for seniors.

This leaves many older people with limited options.

“Some seniors don't have a choice between their single family home with no services and a more sort of facility environment like a nursing home,” says Katy Easterly Martey, executive director of New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority. “There's a lot of alternatives in the middle of that that I think more aligns with people's needs and is more cost effective, but we just unfortunately don't have that built yet.”

And that lack of housing alternatives presents a problem for other generations: When seniors can’t downsize, their bigger homes aren’t available to young families looking for a house to buy.

“It’s putting pressure on other parts of the market,” Martey says.

In the meantime, Martey points to several initiatives that could serve as blueprints for other parts of the state: a new 65-unit apartment building in Rochester for low-income older adults, an effort at a North Conway senior center to match older adults with roommates, and work by the Tamworth Community Nurse Association to help seniors age in place.

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Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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