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For older adults living in rural communities, the challenge of aging in place is often magnified. What specific programs and policies have proven successful and could be replicated? View the full forum.

By Joe Belden

Almost 26 percent of the nation’s seniors live in rural areas. As the baby boom generation continues to age, unique challenges will be placed on housing and supportive services for rural seniors, who experience more poverty than seniors nationally. Rural America is also aging faster than the nation overall, due to both natural population change and the continuing exodus of younger adults. Housing conditions are different for rural senior renters and homeowners. Rural seniors typically own their homes, many of them outright. While most seniors are happy with their homes, the physical changes of aging can impact the capacity to age in place successfully. Rural seniors who rent are also significantly more likely to experience problems with housing affordability than those who own.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two housing resources that help rural seniors age in place. A first challenge is to help older homeowners stay in their homes, living independently as long as possible. An excellent resource is USDA Rural Development’s Section 504 repair program. It provides loans and grants to very low-income homeowners in rural areas who are unable to finance necessary repairs through other sources. Loans are used to make general repairs and improvements or to remove health and safety hazards. Grants are used only to remove health and safety hazards or to make dwellings accessible to the disabled. The loans are available to persons with adjusted incomes below 50 percent of area median, while grants are only for very low-income persons age 62 or older. Since 1950 USDA has made over 193,000 Section 504 grants worth $897.7 million, and 183,000 loans totaling $822.5 million. Many seniors receive both loans and grants.

Home repair and rehab are vital, but at some point aging rural individuals may need to utilize other options such as rental housing. USDA Section 515 rental properties are an affordable option for low-income rural seniors (and non-seniors). Since the 1960s, USDA has financed the construction of more than 533,000 rural rental homes through section 515 (but none in the last four years). These rental homes also have a tenant rent subsidy called Rental Assistance (which is similar the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development project-based Section 8). Section 515 properties currently face challenges with possible shortages of rental assistance funds, and with loss of units from low-income use as their mortgages mature and are paid off.

With the scope and magnitude of the looming demographic shift of seniors, rural communities will need to develop a range of housing options such as rental housing, rehabilitation and repair assistance. As part of that mix, these USDA resources both enhance the lives of seniors and are more cost-effective than long-term care. Congressional support for these rural housing resources in appropriations has made the programs’ continuation and replication possible.

Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, DC. He was formerly deputy executive director of the Housing Assistance Council.

Welcome to the BPC Health and Housing Expert Forum. Each month contributors from different parts of the health and housing sectors will be invited to respond to a discussion topic. Have a question you’d like us to consider? Please leave it in the comments.

Any views expressed on this forum do not necessarily represent the views of the Senior Health and Housing Task Force, its co-chairs, or the Bipartisan Policy Center.