Tempt over-55s out of the family home

We don’t just need more housing, we need more appropriate housing. Architects, step up

The UK housing crisis seems to have been with us for so long that it no longer meets the definition of a crisis – it’s more a chronic disorder. Most people recognise and accept a need for more homes. Far fewer appreciate that we need a more appropriate housing stock: one that better fits the needs of the nation.

One test of how successful we have been is to examine the response in housing to the huge demographic shifts in the age profile of the nation. The data suggest we are failing. The upside is that addressing this failure could greatly ease the housing stress that increasingly dominates the headlines and politics.

It is a complex problem, beyond simply money and construction. Any solution must embrace the particular needs of the swelling older generation by considering access to services, planning, communities, transport, wealth, health, benefits, relationships and a host of other associated matters. This must be delivered in the context of existing communities in a way that is seen as fair and positive. The answer is not simply a matter of building more bungalows and retirement and care homes.

Architects clearly have a huge role to play in solving this problem, not least in broadening the horizons of possibility and breaking the constraints on what is seen as practical.

The first hurdle, however, is to appreciate the scale of the issue. Recently released data from the English Housing Survey (EHS) helps greatly. There is a section that focuses on housing for older people.

Note this for starters: between 1996 and 2014 the number of households where the oldest person was under 55 years old has increased just 4%. Those where the oldest person was over 55 has increased 30%. Put another way, 55+ households account for 85% of the total growth. This is illustrated in Chart 1.

  • Chart 1
    Chart 1

If the built environment is to suit the demands of the changing population and meet the broader aims of society, adapting and expanding the housing stock to better cater for this age group must be a priority. In turn, this suggests an urgent need to better understand how the current housing stock meets the needs of today’s households. Here the data points to failures.

One consequence of not building to meet changing demand is that the distribution of housing space is becoming increasingly skewed. Chart 2 shows how the floor area for older households has expanded while that for those under 55 has remained pretty much steady. The impact of this can be seen in the occupancy levels of homes.

  • Chart 2
    Chart 2

Data from the EHS show 14% of older households occupying detached homes in 1996. In 2014 it was 22%. Over that period the proportion of younger households in detached homes fell from 16% to 14%. Over the past 20 years we have seen overcrowding increase, but so has under-occupation of housing. EHS shows a rise from 2.7% to 3.0% in overcrowding and a rise from 31.2% to 36.2% in under-occupation. Part of this may be put down to rising inequality, but much is due to shifting demographics.

The migration of the young to cities is a factor. But the overall consequence is a redistribution of habitable space from the young to the old, along with a shift in wealth in the form of housing equity.

But given that the majority of children are brought up in households where the oldest person is under 55, the distribution of space is of heightened concern.

From the point of view of solving the housing crisis and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the housing stock, these figures hint at possible positive avenues to pursue. Put simply, older people are more likely to under-occupy their homes and have significantly more housing equity. A quick estimate from the survey data suggests that the 55+ households in England alone have more than £2,000 billion in housing equity. This broadly fits with the findings of research into this topic by Savills and Demos (see links below).

Older equity-rich people with large homes are likely to be choosier when moving to a new home, for a host of reasons. But given they tend to live in larger older houses, familiar but not necessarily matching their current needs, many may be tempted by smaller more comfortable homes – if they are on offer. Creating attractive homes for older people in a modern context, we might argue, is a starring role for architects.

Importantly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the survey finds older people are much less likely to move – 8% moving in the past three years compared with a third of younger households. More interestingly there appears to be significant differences between the groups in why they move.

For older households ‘family reasons’ stand out, 27.4% for the over 55s compared with 17.4% for younger households. But if we look at the four top reasons, which account for 64% of the reasons older households move, they are: family; wanting smaller home; better neighbourhood; or because the existing home is unsuitable. These four reasons account for just 38% among younger households. These are community and space-use issues. The domain of the architect.

A further interesting point emerging from the survey was that when older people move, on average, they move further than younger people. This poses a question: would more of the older homeowners be willing to move if there were suitable homes built near to where they currently live?

This would provide older people with more suitable homes within their existing community and free up more family homes for younger households with children.

We can speculate, but designing and delivering homes for the swelling number of households aged 55 and above is a critical issue of our time. The latest English Housing Survey does provide plenty of useful insight into what is a highly complex topic.

One thing is well worth bearing in mind. Money is probably not the constraining factor; as a group the baby boomers have the biggest slice of the housing equity pie and it is a very big pie indeed. 

Link to Savills

Link to Demos