Durable Growth

Urbanism and senior living: Shedding the extra bedrooms

Typical suburban development

Typical suburban development

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the intersection of urbanism and senior living.  Thus far, I’ve largely focused on the forms that senior living can take in urban settings and the steps needed to encourage downtown senior options.

But I’ve also written that many seniors, even if they find walkable urban life appealing, are nonetheless stuck in drivable suburbia because there are few suitable urban options or because they can’t sell their current homes at a price adequate to support a move downtown.

Today, I’ll begin writing about how to bring touches of urbanism to those living their final years in drivable suburbia.

I don’t recall the speaker, but there was a particularly insightful moment on the subject of senior living at CNU 22, the most recent annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  The speaker was digging into the statistics showing that many seniors prefer to “age in place”.

The aging in place sentiment is generally understood to mean that seniors wish to remain in the homes where they raised their families.  This understanding has launched many businesses focused on modifying homes with grab bars, providing essential in-home services, and otherwise facilitating seniors remaining in their long-time homes.

But as the speaker dug more deeply into the statistics, he found that many seniors weren’t necessarily thinking about the homes as the “places” where they insisted on “aging”.  Instead, they didn’t want to leave behind the neighbors with whom they had long friendships, the coffee shops where they spent Saturday mornings, or the butchers who cut their Christmas prime ribs.  Perhaps not all, but many seniors no longer cared about the five bedrooms and quarter-acre of grass where they’d raised their families.  They didn’t want to leave their neighborhoods.   Their neighborhood was their “place”.

Of course, in the American version of land use, there are rarely alternative homes within large-lot single-family neighborhoods that are suited to the elder years, so it’s not surprising that the seniors were unable to express their preference for neighborhood over home.  But it’s nonetheless a preference that should be recognized.

Of course, the problem with the preference is home size.  Even if seniors no longer have an interest in dusting and vacuuming 2,500 square feet of house, most neighborhoods don’t offer reasonable alternatives.

However, there are people trying to rectify that deficiency.  In classrooms at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, students are looking for ways to more gracefully accommodate aging.  One idea is to construct duplexes configured so the second unit can be rented out in the early years of marriage, occupied during the child-rearing decades, and then again rented out during the later years of life.

On a similar track, Witold Rybczynski wrote in his book “City Life” about his role in developing Grow Homes, narrow, shared-wall homes that are sold with the upper floors open and unfinished.  The intended buyers are young married couples who can divide and finish the upper stories to suit as their families grow and their specific needs become evident.

Of course, Grow Homes, as their name implies, are more suited to expanding families, but the flexibility to reinvent the upper stories can also meet senior needs, from convalescent rooms to apartments for caretakers to living accommodations for other seniors, creating a “naturally-occurring retirement community” or NORC as I described in a recent post.

Although not widespread, with most of the 10,000 units near Montreal where they were invented, Grow Homes have received wide acclaim.

Also in “City Life”, Rybczynski wrote about the town of Mariemont, Ohio, where the walkable core includes apartments suitable for young couples, small-lot single-family homes for child-rearing, and eldercare facilities, all of which combine into a place where one can live an entire life.  (Before someone else offers this fact, I’ll note that Mariemont was originally intended as whites-only, proving only that our forebearers were better at urban planning than at social justice.)

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), commonly called “granny flats”, can also widen the range of housing options in a suburban neighborhood.  Whether stand-alone units adjoining primary houses or additions to existing homes, such as flats above garages, ADUs can provide a place where empty-nesters can make more suitable homes for their later years.  I’ve heard of seniors who have moved into a newly-added ADU and then rented their former homes to a young family.  (Personally, I once spent 18 months living comfortably in an ADU over a garage in a suburban neighborhood.)

The biggest impediment to ADUs is often impact fees.  Much like small downtown units, as described in my previous post, ADUs can have impact fees that exceed their true impacts, as unenlightened cities try desperately to balance books teetering precariously from the failed suburban experiment.

Lastly, I’ll refer back to an idea I offered in the spring, about reconfiguring under-used neighborhood parks to add, among other elements, small blocks of residential apartments.  At the time, my goal was to raise resources to make the parks more relevant to contemporary life, but a side effect would be creating places for elders, who no longer want their outsized homes, to remain in their long-time neighborhoods.

Adding smaller residential units to a suburban neighborhood doesn’t make it urban.  But it’s one small step in the right direction.  Having defined that step, I’ll write in my next post about adding non-driving mobility to suburbia.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

2 comments to Urbanism and senior living: Shedding the extra bedrooms

  • […] sets out to determine which is a bigger risk: car collisions or pollution caused by cars. Vibrant Bay Area writes that there aren’t enough smaller homes in America for the growing number of seniors […]

  • As you note, ADUs are a great housing model to help seniors continue living in their neighborhood.

    Cities can go a long way to support ADUs by waiving impact fees (as Portland, OR did 5 years ago). However, the best long-term solution is probably to have impact fees scale with home size – so ADUs would have naturally lower fees just because they’re small. With that system, a 5,000 square foot homes would pay higher impact fees than 1,500 square foot homes. Makes a lot of sense, but it’s hard to find anywhere that this happens.