Do We Need Social Security for Our Houses, Too?

Over the coming two decades, a vast share of Americans "“ a group the size of which we've never seen before "“ is slated to age into retirement and beyond. And unlike their parents' and grandparents' generations, most of these people do not plan to go willingly to the old folks' home. In the new buzz phrase of policymakers, 80-90 percent of these aging Baby Boomers say they want to "age in place."

There is just one problem: our places are not fit for the aged. Federal legislation like theAmericans with Disabilities Act has slowly been changing the way we build for the past 20 years, so that newer multi-family complexes and a fraction of all housing built with public funds can accommodate, say, a walker or a wheelchair, or someone who can't make it to the second floor to use the bathroom. But the real obstacle for an aging America has not yet been touched: our national army of privately built single-family homes.

A handful of cities and counties "“ Pima County and Tucson, Arizona; Bolingbrook, Illinois "“ today have ordinances that are starting to tackle this, mandating that new private home construction include some basic design features that will aid both the disabled and the elderly. But as these laws spread and expand, we are destined for a difficult national conversation about that least favorite American pastime: planning for when we get old. Should young first-time homebuyers be required to build into their homes accommodations for 80-year-olds? Should we require owners who extensively remodel their existing houses to make some of these changes, too (at a much greater cost)? And is now the time "“ just when the homebuilding industry is trying to get back on its feet "“ to layer on more regulation?

The homebuilding industry wants all of these improvements "“ typically including no-step entrances, wider doorways and ground-floor half bathrooms "“ to be voluntary. But advocates of these ordinances say this is nothing less than a public-health imperative, and voluntary policies won't seriously get us there. Many of these are older ideas long championed by disability advocates, but the aging population has suddenly made the debate much more universal, with groups like the AARP now pushing for such laws.

"The building industry objects because they want it to be demand-driven, but the problem is that consumers may not be aware enough of this because the reality of it is that most home purchases are made by people who are healthy," says Deborah Howe, chair of the Community and Regional Planning department at Temple University's School of Environmental Design. "They're not anticipating staying in a house for a really long time. They're not anticipating a disability."

The central idea here is not unlike Social Security. Left to our own devices, many of us are not great at planning financially for retirement. And so the government makes sure that we're ready when the time comes, in part by asking young people to kick in for the financial security of seniors (on the premise that we'll all be seniors one day). These housing laws, calledvisitability ordinances, and similar bills that have been introduced at both the federal and state levels, would essentially force us to begin planning for when we'll be older not just with our first paycheck, but while we're building and buying homes.