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The Future Will Not be Like the Past

March 5, 2015  |  Kathryn Lawler, Manager of the Aging and Health Resources Division, Atlanta Regional Commission
Kathryn Lawler
Housing and construction have been cornerstones of the metro Atlanta economy for decades. Housing was the reason we grew, the reason we crashed and it will be an essential part of our recovery. While experts are still debating the future of housing, it’s clear that if metro Atlanta is going to thrive, we have to build for a new reality.
 
In 2011, former Senators George Mitchell, Mel Martinez, Christopher “Kit” Bond and former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros formed the Bipartisan Housing Commission. For more than two years this group led a nationwide effort to consider how we might get housing policy back on track. Last September, joined by several hundred economists, bankers, developers and regulators, the commission spent two days reviewing their recommendations and debating how to re-invigorate financing and provide quality housing for people of all incomes. They assessed the state of the economy, lamented all the reasons why Congress isn’t likely to act and contemplated how the nation’s changing demographics will fundamentally and permanently re-shape housing markets.
 
While extensive regulatory change, new but limited ways to share risk, investments in housing for low-in income renters and owners and tax reform are all desperately needed, the commission devoted a considerable number of its recommendations to the aging of the population. They invited the Atlanta Regional Commission to Washington last year because of our groundbreaking work to build Lifelong Communities and our experiences and knowledge about how to address the needs of older adults. The commission believes, as does the Atlanta Regional Commission, that longevity will so profoundly reshape housing, transportation and the economy, that we must thoughtfully prepare and creatively re-imagine how we live together.
 
In the Atlanta region we have accumulated considerable expertise on how to diversify housing options, re-balance transportation investments, create walkable communities that keep people of all ages healthy and engaged and offer the supports and services to help metro residents stay out of hospitals and nursing homes. Our challenge, as we shared with the commission, is that we are not positioned to do any of these things at scale.\
 
Like the rest of the state of Georgia and the country, we are aging; but Atlanta is aging faster than most major metro areas. Atlanta has to get housing back on track so our economy will follow. But we can’t build the way we built before because we aren’t the same.
 
Our population will include far more older people than have ever lived in Atlanta and as a share of the population, far fewer young people. This new community requires a diverse set of housing options and perhaps just as important, transportation options. But, our rules about what gets built, where it gets built and how it gets paid for are holding us back. All across the state, country and around the globe, individuals, private companies and governments are facing the same challenges as they look to respond to the rapidly changing population. Atlanta can be the inspiration—if we are willing to build and invest at scale.
 
We can start by tripling investments in transportation for non-driving and older populations. We should significantly and quickly expand pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure that both keeps people healthy and helps them get where they need to go. We should allow innovations in supportive and senior housing within existing communities rather than on the edges or in highly commercial corridors. Policy makers should invest in services and community supports for older adults rather than cutting them. And we must re-align our health system to incentivize prevention rather than procedures. None of those strategies will be easy.
 
The future will not be like the past. We must invent a different way forward that addresses the new reality of a growing older adult population rather than rely on policies of the past that no longer reflect who we are.
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