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The True Cost of Aging in Place in Chicago: It’s Becoming More Expensive for Older Black Renters

As rental prices surge in Chicago, older Black adults are allocating a growing share of their income towards housing expenses.

Older Black man sitting at desk with hands on head.
Image Credit: iStock

As the clock strikes 9 am on a tranquil Monday morning, the air in a community center near Bronzeville fills with the rhythmic clacks of chess pieces.

Seated around the board are three Black male retirees, deeply engrossed in a strategic game of chess near their apartments. Their focused demeanor belies the weight of the topic that lingers in the air – retirement and its associated costs.

In the heart of Chicago, where vibrant communities like Bronzeville have long been home to Black retirees, the conversation around aging in place is evolving. The tranquility of their chess match contrasts sharply with the rising tide of housing costs that threatens to disrupt their peaceful retirement years.

The financial landscape for renters has morphed into an increasingly formidable terrain to navigate. For those like the gentlemen enjoying their game, the specter of rising rental costs looms large, casting a shadow over their retirement dreams.

A recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) highlights the growing issue of housing affordability in the United States. The study reveals that rental prices have surged to levels beyond the means of many Americans, resulting in 22.4 million households grappling with the burden of housing costs. Specifically, a record number of households are now allocating more than 30% of their income to cover rent and utilities, a problem commonly referred to as being “cost burdened.” Within this group, about 12.1 million faced housing expenses that swallowed more than 50% of their income, classifying them as “severely cost burdened.”

“Median rents have risen nearly continuously since 2001 in inflation-adjusted terms and are 21 percent higher as of 2022,” states JCHS. “Meanwhile, renters’ incomes have risen just 2 percent during the same period.”

However, for retired individuals, particularly those who are Black and residing in Chicago, this burden can be even more pronounced.

Black individuals in Chicago have faced a long history of systemic inequities that have significantly impacted their wealth potential. These include practices such as redlining, which systematically denied Black communities access to housing loans and resources, perpetuating housing segregation and limiting wealth accumulation through homeownership.

Even prominent figures like Carl Hansberry, father of acclaimed playwright Lorraine Hansberry, faced violent resistance and threats from white neighbors when attempting to purchase a home in a predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago in 1937.

Despite Carl’s legal efforts to challenge discriminatory practices, including racially restrictive covenants, the Hansberry family endured a protracted legal battle culminating in the landmark Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee in 1940. While the Court ruled in their favor, the ordeal highlighted the pervasive racial discrimination in housing and the formidable barriers faced by Black individuals seeking to live in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Structural racism has played a significant role in driving down Black homeownership rates and perpetuating the racial wealth gap.

Housing data shows that homeowners, irrespective of mortgage status, tend to have lower overall housing costs compared to renters across most of the nation’s counties. Despite this, Black older adults in Chicago experience lower rates of homeownership, leaving them particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the rental market.

“Even among successful home buyers, Black Americans have lower household incomes, which narrows the available pool of inventory they may be able to afford and makes their journey into homeownership even more difficult in this limited housing inventory environment,” Jessica Lautz, NAR deputy chief economist and vice president of research, said in a statement.

Forecasts indicate a substantial surge in the number of older Black adult renters, expected to double from 1.3 million in 2020 to 2.6 million by 2040 for renters aged 65 and older. This surge is anticipated to contribute to a record-high number of older adult renters by 2040.

Particularly in Chicago, renters are more prone to allocating over 30% of their income towards housing expenses, reflecting a national trend that disproportionately affects Black older adults.

Reflecting on the financial strain, one of the chess players, an 82-year-old retired welder who preferred to remain anonymous, shared his experience: “You have to always think about increasing your income because it’s going to cost you more and more [to live] every year. But it’s hard when you’re on a fixed income. My pension from my job hasn’t increased.”

In January 2021, rent prices experienced a decline, but they have been on an upward trend since then. According to Apartment List, the median rent in Chicago fell to $1,220 for a 1-bedroom apartment and $1,328 for a 2-bedroom in January 2021. Across the entire rental market, the median rent in Chicago was $1,316.

Fast forward to February 2024, renters across the nation are facing a median rent of $1,377, while in Chicago, the average monthly rent stands at $1,644. This means that if you rent in Chicago, you’ll be paying 19.4% more than the national average.

Black individuals often face what’s known as a “rent premium,” where they pay higher rents for similar housing in the same neighborhoods as their white counterparts. Studies have shown that Black tenants may pay up to 2% more in rent compared to white tenants, with this disparity widening in areas with larger white populations. Despite federal fair housing laws enacted over 50 years ago, this rent premium highlights ongoing challenges in accessibility and affordability for people of color in the rental market.

“More than half of my income is going towards rent,” says the chess player. “My rent keeps increasing every year. It went up by $300 last year, and I had to negotiate with them to reduce it to $100.”

Furthermore, wage gaps between Black and white counterparts have persisted over the years, resulting in lower incomes and reduced savings for retirement among Black workers. These systemic disparities in employment opportunities and wages have contributed to a substantial wealth gap between Black and white households, leaving Black individuals with fewer financial resources to rely on during retirement.

“People of color experience a higher risk of financial insecurity,” says Jan E. Mutchler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She defines financial security as “having the resources that are adequate to cover the daily expenses that let us to stay safe and independent in our homes.” Mutchler emphasizes that discussions on financial security should encompass not only retirement income sources like Social Security and retirement savings but also what it actually costs for housing, medical care, and other essentials.

For more than a decade, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston have been producing the Elder Index to summarize those costs for older adults. The Elder Index describes what it costs to safeguard an adequate lifestyle and to preserve our independence.

“We built the Elder Index based on a bare bones budget that includes nothing beyond the essential expenses that people age 65 and older encounter every day,” says Mutchler. “And we calculate the Elder Index county by county.”

The Elder Index estimates that an older person in poor health living alone as a renter in Chicago would need $33,180 to get by in 2023, based on estimated monthly expenses for housing, food, transportation, healthcare, and miscellaneous expenses. According to Jan’s research, a majority of Black Americans have incomes below the Elder Index.

Among individuals aged 65 and above, Social Security constitutes the only income source for 33% of African Americans, while the same holds true for 18% of whites. The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit as of January 2024 stands at $1,907. However, the Social Security benefits received by Black Americans may be constrained by factors such as their earnings, employment opportunities, work hours, and other related aspects.

Mutchler emphasizes, “There isn’t any place in the U.S. where the average Social Security benefit covers the Elder Index cost. Everywhere housing is a large share of the true cost of aging. The more people need to pay for housing, the less they have available to cover medical expenses, food, and other essentials.”

The sentiment is echoed by the chess players, who reflect on how swiftly their Social Security checks are depleted by housing costs.

“It’s just not enough,” the chess player remarked, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s why I told my children to learn everything they can now. I also advise them to invest in 401(k)s, IRAs, and other financial instruments. I wasn’t taught that growing up.”

This story was produced as part of Columbia University’s Age Boom Academy.

To reach the reporter behind this story, contact hello@chicagosouthsider.com.



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