I think the appointment of a commission to find ways to make Lawrence and Douglas County more appealing to retirees is a very good idea. Lawrence and the surrounding communities enjoy a number of significant advantages in such an effort: Kansas University can provide a multitude of activities for seniors, including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute run by KU Continuing Education; we are blessed with excellent cultural institutions and programs; the cost of living is moderate; and we have a terrific medical center in Lawrence Memorial Hospital, among other things. But if Lawrence and Douglas County are going to become a major retirement living center, then we also need to think about the special problems retirees face today and will be facing in the decades to come.
Recently, I have been reading a good bit of material about retirement financing and retirement housing in particular. It is clear from my readings that the baby boom generation is facing some significant problems in retirement. First, we (since I am a baby boomer) have become accustomed to living well, better than our parents’ generation. There is no reason to think that the majority of baby boomers will willingly scale back their expectations in retirement. Second, our generation didn’t save enough to finance retirement on the scale many want. Third, even those who saved have seen their savings decimated by the recession.
Fourth, low interest rates—and the prospect of such rates continuing for years into the future—means that the income produced by retirement savings is far lower than many expected. Fifth, both private and public pensions and Social Security no longer seem secure. Finally, medical expenses and insurance costs continue to rise and can easily wipe out even substantial retirement savings. All of this means one thing: Many retirees either find themselves with less money than they had planned or are more fearful that their retirement savings will not be enough to provide a secure and comfortable retirement.
From the perspective of places like Lawrence and Douglas County, the financial problems and worries so many baby boomer retirees face today require not only that communities attempt to provide cultural, sports, and entertainment facilities, but that they also think seriously about how they can create financial incentives to attract retirees. Nobody who follows the activities of the Lawrence City Commission and the Douglas County Commission can doubt that they know how to hand out financial incentives. Ask any local developer.
I would suggest that the newly appointed commission on retirees think about suggesting programs that would provide financial incentives to retirees and to those developers who are willing to build homes for retirees and pass on savings to the owners or renters. Perhaps, we might provide new retirees who move to Lawrence an initial grace period in which the retirees pay lower real estate taxes, something like the abatements from taxes we now provide to commercial development projects. Or, perhaps, the city and county could work with local banks to provide mortgage guarantees to retirees moving into the community, guarantees that could result in lower interest rates.
Lawrence and Douglas County leaders need to be creative if we are to make our community a leading retirement destination. I believe that one important aspect of what will be needed will be creative strategies to provide financial incentives to retirees just as we have traditionally provided for commercial development.