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The Bay Area’s senior population is set to balloon, but the region is far from ready

The Bay Area’s senior population is set to balloon, but the region is far from ready

Picture of Chloe Lee Rowlands

With California’s senior population expected to grow by two-thirds in the next two decades, one of the biggest questions is how prepared the state is to meet that challenge. This shift in the population will have a dramatic impact on resources and infrastructure in the Bay Area, including housing, employment, transportation, and health care, among other needs. 

In 2015, the UC Berkeley Labor Center reported that California was facing a mounting retirement crisis amid this shift towards an older population. With the cost of living in California high and rising, and many aging workers unprepared for retirement, California seniors are expected to face major challenges to meet even basic requirements like housing and access to health care. The UC Berkeley Labor Center report found that a third of seniors live below 200% of the federal poverty line, unable to afford basic needs.

Coming off the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has worsened. With the economy rebounding from the pandemic, rent prices in the Bay Area are expected to rise again as more residents return to work and see an increase in their income. However, for Bay Area residents who are currently retired or plan to retire in the next few years, they may not see their financial resources return to pre-pandemic levels and may struggle to afford the rising cost of living in the Bay Area. 

With the cost of housing in the Bay Area expected to continue rising, it is likely that many people in the Bay Area who are reaching the age of retirement in the next decade may need to continue working longer than they may have expected in order to afford living here. Nearly two thirds of seniors in California depend on social security for at least half of their income and less than half of senior households have retirement assets such as a 401(k) or pension.

In 2015, the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that 26% of senior households faced a housing cost burden, defined as spending more than 30% of their income on housing. In California, that amounted to 935,000 households, which is 25 times the number of affordable, subsidized housing units available. Since then, not only has the senior population continued to increase, but the problem of affordable housing availability in the Bay Area has worsened.

At this moment, the Bay Area’s regional planning agency is setting housing goals for the next 10 years, but data collected by the Association of Bay Area Governments indicates that in the core nine Bay Area counties, no jurisdictions have met their goals for low-income or very-low-income housing, and most jurisdictions have not met their total housing allocation goals. 

With decisions being made imminently that will affect the next 10 years, the impact on housing needs must be considered immediately, especially with more than 50% of senior renters struggling financially and unable to meet their basic needs.

The retirement crisis has an even larger impact on seniors of color, who are expected to make up more than half of California’s senior population by 2035. On average, seniors of color have half the income of white seniors and lack access to retirement plans and secure employment. Asian and Latino seniors have the lowest average incomes, followed by Black seniors. Latino seniors are nearly three times as likely to live in poverty compared to white seniors and are the fastest growing population of seniors. 

With such growth in the population of seniors in California, the state needs to be putting effort and resources towards providing affordable housing among other social services, including employment, transportation and services related to health care. By showing the data behind the demographic shift and its impact, we will illustrate the urgency of these trends. The visualization of that data will offer a compelling way to show readers, voters and policy makers how much action is needed to correct course and meet future demands.

As the aging population in California swells over the span of the next two decades, it is essential to identify what changes Bay Area counties will need to make to address the needs of seniors as soon as possible. In doing so, we can anticipate the challenges ahead for this vulnerable population and influence the policymakers and changemakers who can help all of us prepare for the coming demographic shifts.

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