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Mortgage debt rising among older homeowners; metro Atlanta faces decisions

By David Pendered

Mortgage debt continues to rise among the nation’s homeowners age 65-plus. More than a quarter of the 80-plus crowd now has mortgage debt, according to findings by the Federal Reserve and Harvard University.

senior housing, 1

Ida Mae Kepler lived alone in her home until she died, age 94. The widow of a minister, Kepler’s children tended to her in her later years. Credit: David Pendered

In metro Atlanta, the Atlanta Regional Commission has found that older residents face a wide array of housing challenges that include cost burdens.

These reports continue the alarm sounded by the Fed in 2013, when it warned that the loss in homeowner equity caused by the Great Recession of 2007 had major implications for the elderly. The 2013 report cautioned of “a significant reduction in, or even elimination of, some adults’ housing wealth that was previously available to help fund retirement or other expenses.”

In metro Atlanta, these debt levels could become a policy challenge for the region given the fast growth rate expected in the aged population – almost doubling from 11 percent to 20 percent by 2040, to 1.2 million older residents, according to an ARC forecast released in 2019. The ARC continues to present strategies for addressing the challenges facing seniors, including a five-year framework plan released Sept. 23, 2020 that addresses disparities in life expectancy in local neighborhoods, Live Beyond Expectations.

The national numbers on mortgage debt held by the elderly are stunning.

They show that seniors have not paid down mortgage debt, and actually have accrued an increasing amount of mortgage-backed debt, since the years leading to recessions in 1990 and 2001.

senior retirement ad

Communities for adults age 55-plus have proliferated in metro Atlanta as the region’s population has grayed and their resources covered entrance costs and fees. This development was advertised at the 2018 Atlanta Jazz Festival. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The Federal Reserve reported in September 2020 that the median mortgage debt in 2019 among homeowners aged 65 years to 74 years was at the highest level since the year the chart begins, in 1989. The chart shows the following mortgage debt levels for borrowers ages 65-74 years:

  • 2019 – $89,000;
  • 2010 – $82,480;
  • 2001 – $56,330;
  • 1998 – $40,890;
  • 1992 – $30,390;
  • 1989 – $17,900.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University adds to the human face of the situation. A rising proportion of 65-plus homeowners have taken on mortgage-backed debt, according to the State of the Nation’s Housing, 2020 report, issued in November 2020. A snapshot from this report shows:

  • “The share of homeowners age 65 and over with housing debt doubled from 1989 to 2019, from 21 to 42 percent, while the median outstanding balance rose from $18,000 to $86,000 (both in 2019 dollars) over the same period.
  • “Among owners age 80 and over, 27 percent were carrying mortgage debt in 2019, compared with 3 percent in 1989.”

The Fed’s report, Survey of Consumer Finances, shows the following about the rising level of mortgage-backed debt carried by homeowners 75 years and older:

  • 2019 – $82,000;
  • 1989 – $13,920.
federal reserve, home-secured debt

The level of mortgage debt carried by homeowners age 65-plus has increased at a steady rate since the recession of 1990. Credit: federalreserve.gov

The Atlanta Regional Commission identified aspects of the challenge related to mortgage debt among older homeowners, and proposed a number of solutions, in its latest policy statement on senior housing, issued in January 2019. The ARC is the region’s Area Agency on Aging, an entity required by the 1973 revisions to the Older Americans Act. The challenge identified by the ARC observes:

  • “There is not enough quality, affordable housing in metro Atlanta to meet the needs of the region’s fast-growing population of older adults. 58% of metro Atlanta renters aged 65+ spend more than 30% of their income on housing.”

The solutions identified by the ARC include four at the state level and three at the city/county level. The solutions are cited under a statement that observes:

  • “Increasing housing options available to older adults in metro Atlanta requires action from state and local officials as well as the housing industry. Market forces alone cannot adequately address this issue.
  • “Policies must be implemented that encourage the development of a mix of housing types within existing communities, at a variety of price points. Zoning regulations should be written to allow homes to be built in close proximity to the services that enable people to remain independent as they age.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Russell Wagner January 5, 2021 9:56 am

    What has also happened for these citizens is the rising assessment costs on their home that will hit their fixed income. They are going to see substantial increases on their assessments, raising their taxes. Even though with homestead or other exemptions, it might not be enough. Rising real estate sales is the factor, and the next major factor that will effect taxes are the effects of covid to retail sales tax, tourism tax, and other taxes the cities and municipalities depend on. This will be multiple contributing factors that create a rise in taxes this year and the next.Report

    1. Jim Bob January 8, 2021 1:13 pm

      We also need to remember that metro counties including Gwinnett and Cobb exempt the elderly from school taxes. Fulton does not. School taxes are a huge portion of the property taxes paid by all tax payers in Georgia.Report

  2. John Robbins January 5, 2021 11:57 am

    Thanks for sharing this important information, David. Just curious, did the research provide any information on home values over time? Just think it would be helpful to see how loan-to-value (LTV) has changed over time as well.Report

    1. David Pendered January 8, 2021 12:59 pm

      Hello, John,
      You raise an excellent point. The data does not appear to provide an answer. Knowing the proportions you cite would be helpful.
      I’ll keep an eye out for such information and share those results in a story.
      Best regards,


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