Suburbs to age ungracefully?

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December 12, 2008
BY KAY SEVERINSEN – SearchChicago-Homes Editor
Between now and 2030, the over-65 population will double in the nation’s suburbs, says the author of a new book.

"Suburban areas can expect a ‘silver tsunami,’" says William H. Hudnut III, one of the authors of Changing Metropolitan America: Planning for a Sustainable Future (Urban Land Institute, $36.95). And if you don’t like the phrase "silver tsunami," how about Hudnut’s other one: "silverburbs"?

Whatever you call it, suburban areas, traditionally geared toward families, will have an increasingly elderly population. And that leads to an endless list of questions: How will that population vote on school referendums? What will they want from retailers, social services, the entertainment industry and from city services? Will they age in their family homes or move to active-adult or assisted-living communities?

Home builders like to predict what aging boomers want, but most of their predictions seem to focus on one segment of the boomer population — the fortunate few with solid pension plans. Those are the ones who have planned ahead for retirement and are ready to enjoy their golden years. They will be moving into active-adult communities, playing golf and bingo and wintering in the Sunbelt.

Seemingly ignored in all the housing predictions are the rest of us — the majority, as it turns out — who won’t have money or means to retire, whose golden years might be made of tinfoil.

One of the latest reports to decry the lack of savings in baby boomers’ portfolios is one by the McKinsey Global Institute. The study found that older boomers, born between 1945 and 1954, are saving no more than 20 percent of their income in their late 40s, and young boomers, born between 1955 and 1964, are saving no more than 10 percent.

These folks will still be working, or hoping to work, well past the traditional retirement age, and will be trying to maintain their aging properties, too. So, picture, if you will, 75-year-old Joe Schmo, coming home from the office where he still works part-time as an insurance adjuster, and seeing that the gutter is loose. He climbs up his ladder to fix it. Or not. After all, Mr. Schmo is tired and has back problems. He can’t ask the neighbors to help, because they are old, too, and in no better shape than he is.

Many of us have at least one neighbor like Mr. Schmo right now. It’s only been a few years since my own family moved to another neighborhood to get away from Cat Man, an elderly fellow who lived with his even more elderly mother in a house full of feral cats.

In addition to cats, the house had raccoons, which used a hole in the garage roof to get in to the cat food. The stench was so bad that twice my next-door neighbors and I called the gas company, sure that the smell was a gas leak. It was not, a brave investigator told us. It was the smell of cat urine, in large amounts, all over the inside of a house.

A pro-active city could make sure that Cat Men are few and far between. Suburbs that plan ahead for a cash-strapped elderly population could offer tax breaks and free paint, for example. Some communities could use the federal government’s Community Development Block Grant program to rehab houses; volunteer groups could plan "fix up days."

Today’s newer subdivisions still have that shiny, just built look, but they could become tomorrow’s problem neighborhoods, regardless of their original price.

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