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We’re living longer and making the housing shortage worse

Many people are staying in their homes years beyond what they would have a generation or two ago

Jackpot: “It was sheer, blind, ridiculous luck,” said Mary McPeak of the subsidized apartment she landed through a Brookline lottery.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Why is it so damn hard to afford a home in Greater Boston?

Rewind: For the past month, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team has been running a deeply reported exploration of the question. The series tugs at the constrictor knot of causes behind the problem: restrictive zoning laws, NIMBYism, and, yes, an undertow of racism. Soaring land and building costs, and the dearth of new construction. And sky high mortgage rates that have just made it all so much worse.

Spotlight makes clear that the villain here isn’t a greedy corporation or even capitalism run amok. It’s the pernicious side of the American homeownership dream, as decent, hard-working people collectively deepen the housing shortage by trying to protect their own interests.

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What’s more: There is another root cause that I’d like to highlight today: increasing longevity. Americans are living longer and often healthier lives. Many people are staying in their homes years beyond what they would have a generation or two ago.

By the numbers: In 1930, when my silent generation parents were born, the expected lifespan of a newborn was 66.1 years for males and 72.9 years for females, according to the Social Security Administration’s so-called cohort tables. (A cohort life table takes into account actual and projected improvements in mortality for the age group throughout its lifetime.)

By 1961, the tail end of the baby boomer cohort when I was born, that had risen to 74.1 years and 79.7 years. And in 1988, when my millennial first child came along, life expectancy had climbed to 78.8 years and 83.1 years.

Over the span of four generations — including Generation X, who follow the boomers — men were expected to live nearly 13 years longer while women gained more than 10 years.

Americans are also retiring later in life. Over the past three decades, the average retirement age has risen three years to 65 for men and 62 for women, according to the Boston College Center for Retirement Research. Many folks continue to work even after “retirement.”

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Logjam: Seniors seeking to downsize are often stuck, unable to afford a smaller home or rent an apartment. As they stay in homes longer — often with no mortgage or a dirt-cheap interest rate — there are fewer opportunities for families to trade up to a larger home and for first-time homebuyers to get into the market.

Prohibitive costs: Massachusetts is the most expensive state for senior renters to live independently, according to a study by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts was more than $2,800 a month in September, the highest in the nation, according to ApartmentAdvisor. In Boston, it was $3,300 a month.

For buyers, the median condominium price in Greater Boston was $694,800 in October, up 36 percent over the same month in 2017, data from the Greater Boston Association of Realtors show. The median price of a single-family home was nearly $830,000, a gain of 46 percent over the same stretch.

Exceptions to the rule: The solution for some seniors is to move to another part of the country — or even abroad. Some combination of lower prices and taxes, warmer weather, and closer proximity to children and grandchildren is frequently the deciding factor. The tradeoff, of course, is giving up local friends and family, and leaving a region that many have called home for decades. That’s an incalculable cost.

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Final thought: Greater longevity is a boon to us all. But who could have predicted it would also add to the housing squeeze?


Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeNewsEd.