Homelessness in older age – Auckland’s “hidden problem”

By Bonnie Robinson, CEO - 27 October 2022

Homelessness in older age – Auckland’s “hidden problem”

Can you imagine being in your 80s and being given just a few weeks’ notice to find suitable accommodation in a city where rents have soared in the past decade?
Affordable housing is becoming a huge issue in Auckland, and older people are being impacted.

“It’s often assumed that most people have their own mortgage-free home by retirement, but that’s not always the case,” explains Bonnie Robinson, CEO of HBH Senior Living. “There’s a wide range of reasons why previous home owners may end up renting in older age. Some get divorced later in life; others have lost jobs and can’t get back into work or find work at the same pay rate; while others develop an illness or disability in older age.”

Increased housing costs are also a factor, with many people able to manage the cost of renting while they’re working, but once they’re on a pension, they simply can’t afford it any more. “Someone may have been in stable housing but it’s no longer suitable: however they can’t find disability-friendly housing that’s also affordable,” she says. “Suddenly, they have nowhere to go.”

What’s more, the shortage of affordable housing for seniors is expected to escalate over the next decade and beyond. The Public Housing plan (2021-2024) shows that housing deprivation in Auckland across all age groups is currently at 45% – the highest in the country with 37,623 more social houses required by 2024. With an increasing number of older people reaching retirement who are dependent on the rental market, the next few generations of retirees will be most impacted.

A very real issue for Auckland’s older people

“Homelessness in older age is a very real issue, but it’s a ‘hidden’ problem,” Bonnie explains. “Seniors often end up in rental accommodation that uses up all their money, or in inadequate housing. Some live with family or friends, but that’s not always viable. Many have to compromise on food, healthcare and other essential costs in order to stay housed in the private rental market.”

Bonnie suspects that a lot of older people are living in inadequate situations. “Stevenson Village has several enquiries every week, yet we only have around four vacancies a year. Sometimes, seniors have been living in a granny flat or similar and the house is being sold: they are often given only a few weeks’ notice. Or they might want to move to Auckland to be close to family, but the cost of renting here is just too high. Many people end up with nowhere to live, which can be devastating when you’re older. You can’t sleep in a car in your 80s.”

Retirement villages not always a realistic solution

With the rise of multi-million dollar retirement villages all around Auckland, there’s a common misconception that older people are taken care of. “Retirement villages are only an option if you have enough money or an asset that’s worth enough to sell so you can buy into a village,” points out Bonnie. “For those who do have the money, it can work – but it doesn’t work for seniors with a low-value house or no house at all.”

Unfortunately, most local councils have stopped building senior-specific housing many years ago or have sold off many council-owned blocks of units, so suitable housing is not keeping up with demand and the changes in ageing population. With few other organisations specialising in affordable housing for older people, supply is becoming more and more limited, while demand is increasing rapidly.

In fact, the number of people aged 65+ in New Zealand is estimated to double within the next 50 years. Stats NZ estimates that the number of people aged 65+ in New Zealand (0.79 million in 2020) is highly likely to increase to 1.36–1.51 million by 2048 and to 1.61–2.22 million by 2073. Which means homelessness in older age may soon escalate into a major issue.

A safe, healthy, age-friendly home for all seniors

“Living in a warm, comfortable and safe home is critical to remaining healthy and ageing in place. Without this, older people risk early or preventable admission to acute health care services or residential care. Social isolation is more common amongst older people generally and is exacerbated by inappropriate or insecure housing,” explains Bonnie.

One of the key tenets of HBH Senior Living philosophy is a belief that all seniors should have a safe, healthy and age-friendly place to live, wherever they choose to call home. A non-profit organisation with a focus on homes, care and community, HBH Senior Living is committed to providing a wide range of housing options for older people in Auckland.

To that end, the organisation purchased Stevenson Village in 2017 to ensure the Howick area retained some affordable social housing for seniors.

Driven by purpose, not profit, HBH Senior Living provides outreach community care for older people living in their own homes, including a popular Day Programme and Virtual Village East, a social and support network for seniors that offers events, classes and activities for seniors, both online and in-person.

Moving forward, HBH Senior Living is hoping to provide more affordable rental housing for seniors in the future. “We’re still exploring our options, but we know it’s becoming critical,” says Bonnie. “Auckland is going to reach a crisis point sometime in the next few years – and we will unfortunately see more homeless older people, unless we do something about it, and soon.”

Bonnie Robinson, CEO