Randle Loeb, 70, returned home by bicycle from one of the two jobs that keep him busy seven days a week. He sat down in the subsidized hotel room in downtown Denver where he’s lived since January. He wondered what his late father would think.
“He stopped working at the age of 67. He would not have dreamed that his son would have to work the rest of his life until he’s too feeble to do it,” Loeb said. “Most people believe their children will be able to take care of themselves, and obviously that’s not true anymore. We are essentially scrambling to survive.”
Loeb is a victim of a Colorado housing crisis that was made worse by the pandemic, and data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s weekly household survey shows housing instability is especially pronounced among older adults. In midsummer, Colorado ranked first for housing instability in the U.S., with more than a third of survey respondents 65 and older expressing “slight confidence” or “no confidence” they could make rent.
Census surveys have for more than a year now shown about a fifth of all Colorado renters — no matter their age — unsure if they can make their next rent payment. Eviction defense attorneys say it’s common for people here to have accumulated thousands in rental debts, only able to stay put in the pandemic because of housing aid programs and an eviction moratorium struck down a month ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Census data fluctuates and is imperfect — the surveys carry a 15% margin of error. But the affordability problem among older adults is likely to deepen as their population booms and Colorado becomes less affordable. A one-bedroom apartment in Denver now averages about $1,650, and averages are above $1,200 up and down the Front Range.
“There’s always been people who can’t afford the cost of living, but there’s more of them now, because of our population growing in 65-plus,” State Demographer Elizabeth Garner said.
The older adult population in Colorado has more than doubled in 20 years, and is now verging on 1 million. Garner’s office projects 1.3 million by 2035. And it’s not a product of migration.
“Our fast-growing older population is completely to do with birthdays, people aging into the 65-plus — not because they’re moving here,” she said. “We’ve never had fast growth in that (age group) before, not like an Arizona or a Florida. So it’s a transition.”
Though older Coloradans are more likely to be homeowners, they’re also more likely to be living on fixed incomes. Loeb said working-class people like him never thought it would cost so much to live.
But worst of all, Loeb said, is the feeling of being unwelcome.
“It makes you scared,” he said. “You’re tired and worn out because you don’t know what you’re going to do. You lose all kind of hope that you’re going to have the possibility of dying with dignity, and you feel like a flame that’s going to flame out, a will-o’-the-wisp that disappears in the breeze.
“That’s the way you feel about your life — forgotten, invisible.”
“It is so hard to find a place”
Service organizations are trying to keep up with the growing need for affordable housing in this age group, but they say they’re up against critical shortages.
“We’re not producing nearly enough for the demand,” said Doug Snyder, vice president for regional real estate for Volunteers of America. “Guys like me, affordable housing developers … the collective output we’re putting out is not keeping pace, and then you overlay the demographic and age and income trends.”
Jayla Sanchez-Warren, who runs the Area Agency on Aging within the Denver Regional Council of Governments, said it’s not a problem that money alone can fix. She sits on a governor-appointed state board to plan for Colorado’s older population, and is pessimistic about how great a dent the state will make with a generational influx of federal COVID-19 aid money.
“When you go to a meeting on this at the state … they don’t talk about older adults,” she said. “And it is so hard to find a place. We’ve got money coming out of our ears, but not actual places to put people in.”
Even housing specifically targeted to older adults is in short supply or sometimes too expensive. Non-assisted living developments can be cheaper than the rental market, but also have waitlists that run up to two years. Assisted living in Colorado costs roughly $4,500 monthly on average, according to the long-term care insurer Genworth.
That sort of thing will never be an option for Geery Early, who at 71 has about $900 a month available from all of his income sources, including Social Security. He’s lived in the same North Federal Boulevard mobile home park since 1980, but said the park owner has advised that he and the other half-dozen remaining residents must leave by November.
“I thought that I would be able to, when I retired, be able to buy groceries and medicine and do OK, and so did everybody else,” he said.
Like Loeb, he’s worked his whole adult life. He’s now in talks with people he knows in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico, and is deciding where he’ll go when he leaves the park.
Were he to stay in Colorado, he said, he’d likely become homeless.
“Housing is the number one issue because everybody needs a place to live,” he said. “And I absolutely don’t have a choice right now.”
But moving is expensive, too, and Loeb worries what’ll happen when stopgap pandemic solutions expire. He knows lots of older adults living in the same hotel who’ll have no place else to go.
“You think we have a lot of people on the street now?” he said. “Wait.”
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