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Census Figures Show Senior Housing Problems, Not Answers

December 22, 2010 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Early Census releases show Minnesota’s aging population is facing serious problems with housing and rental costs throughout the state. But changes in Census gathering methods cast questions over the severity of the problems.

While some early warning signs of problems can be spotted, it is going to take a lot of analytical work for state and local authorities to really know what is happening to our communities, said Ben Winchester, a research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension Service’s Center for Community Vitality.

The Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP) brought this issued to the forefront in a December 14th statement noting that recent Census Bureau data show a majority of senior citizens, ages 65 and older, face “unaffordable” rent expense in 39 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. This includes many counties outside the Twin Cities metro area in what is loosely called “Greater Minnesota.”

“No area of the state was immune from a shortage of affordable rental for seniors,” the Minnesota nonprofit organization noted.

However it’s tough to get a good idea of how much the problem has progressed since 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), which yielded the figures, looks at numbers from 2005-2009 and does not incorporate 2010 Census information, warns Winchester.

MHP cited several counties where people spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing (rental) costs as a measure of affordable or stressed housing costs.

The counties included: Winona (55.3 percent), Clay (54.0 percent), Sherburne (50.8 percent), Wabasha (50.4 percent), St. Louis (50.3 percent), Chisago (50.2 percent), Blue Earth (50.1 percent), Ramsey (49.1 percent), Koochiching (48.1 percent), and Washington (47.2 percent).

Other counties where renters 65 years and older are paying half of their income or more for housing included Mower, Faribault, Grant, Stearns and Douglas counties.

Two problems and a big question jump forward from the data on senior housing rents.

First, Winchester said county data gathered by the American Community Survey are logical for their political geographies. At the same time, these geographies don’t reflect metro and non-metro areas even though many Minnesotans wrongly look at the Twin Cities metro area and call all of the rest “rural.”

From his countryside vantage points of Hancock and the University of Minnesota at Morris, Clay County is not a rural county. It is a metro county in the Fargo-Moorhead area that has five colleges and universities that influence property rental costs.

Winona County is a metro area with three colleges; St. Louis County (Duluth) and Blue Earth County (Mankato) are metro areas with colleges and universities as well.

Stearns and Sherburne counties are part of the St. Cloud metro area, with five major colleges and universities and home to commuters with jobs in the Twin Cities metro area.

Winchester raises another flag on what the data mean. The same “rural” counties that are college centers are also medical centers. Add Douglas County around Alexandria and Mower County around Austin as examples of other medical centers. Rents may well reflect costs that come with being close to hospitals, doctors, clinics and related assisted living centers.

Finally, the Census Bureau goes to great length to discourage comparisons of the new ACS data with the 2000 Census information gathered from the former “long form” that Census has used.

Data on housing, or rental costs, differ greatly between the two methodologies. For instance, Winchester cites data from Traverse County, on the South Dakota border; Grant County around Elbow Lake; and Koochiching County, on the Canadian border as more descriptive of “rural Minnesota.”

The 2000 Census showed 36.6 percent of senior citizens in Traverse County paid more than 30 percent of income for rental costs while the ACS survey shows nearly half, or 46.1 percent, paying those costs in the past five years. Grant County had 24 percent of seniors paying that amount or more in 2000, while the ACS shows it at 46.1 percent.

Up north, Koochiching County had 34.9 percent of seniors paying more than 30 percent of household income on rental costs in 2000 and the numbers jump to 48.1 percent in the ACS survey of the past five years.

The margins of error are too great for comparative analysis, Winchester said.

Nonetheless, too many senior citizens are facing severe problems with housing costs, said Marla Doty, office manager for the Central Minnesota Senior Federation in St. Cloud.

She hears “all the time” about rent hardships for senior citizens across the eight- county region her federation represents. She knows firsthand, as a St. Cloud renter, about how rents are driven up by student housing demands and senior citizens wanting to be close to health facilities.

“We haven’t analyzed it yet, but we know it is a growing problem,” she said. What’s more, the local housing market does have vacancies that she knows are too costly for senior citizens on fixed incomes to rent.

Going forward

The Census Bureau is in a transition period moving from one set of measures to another. Comparisons of apple-and-apple data won’t be possible for at least another year. For an explanation of the different data sets, read the commentary from the University of Missouri’s John Blodgett.

At the same time, Minnesota policy makers and community leaders must assess what the existing data show, and determine how they are meeting existing needs and economic development opportunities.

For many Minnesota communities, the strategic function of the community has shifted from being a farm supply and marketing center to being a home for senior citizens. If this is their future, they must assess how housing availability and costs either encourage or stunt economic growth.

Some communities will choose targeted economic development programs that include “senior friendly” housing and facilities. Others won’t.

No matter the response, communities should know what is occurring now and how it will impact their futures.

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  • Barbara J Ronningen says:

    December 28, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Yes, this is Census data but in fact it’s from the American Cojmmunity Survey so starting your piece with “Early Census release” leads the general reader to assume that this data is from the 2010 Census. Ben Winchester is absolutely right in alerting you to the problems of margin of error. In addition, one of the problems of using percentages rather than actual numbers is that percentages can be very high in small universes. For example, only 345 households pay more than 30% of income for rent in the 3 counties cited by Winchester. At the same time, in Pennington and Pine counties, there are 289 households paying more than 30% of income for rent, but only 41%. My point is that while the percentages are staggering in some rural counties, the numbers are not - in fact, the numbers of households headed by someone 65 and over and paying more than 30% or more of income for rent are far higher in many other counties.