Instead of Isolation or Institution, a Third Approach to Senior Housing

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People who are aging – and their family members – often face a dilemma when it comes to choosing the best housing arrangement. Staying in their homes can become overwhelming and can lead to isolation, which can be dangerous both physically and psychologically. But institutions including retirement apartment communities and “assisted living” can have their drawbacks, too, notably the cost and distance from loved ones.

A third option that might be ideal for many is some variation on the concept of shared housing. This can allow for comfortable aging in place at a modest cost yet with a built-in social or family support system.

The idea is simple enough. It’s to adapt to multi-generational living, ideally in a way that retains a necessary degree of privacy and independence for all parties. This can also go a long way toward helping young people meet the often impossible challenge of finding affordable housing in booming metro areas.

In Wilmington, for example, many younger working people, in jobs such as retail or even teaching or law enforcement, have been all but priced out of home ownership.

Here’s one simple example we’re aware of, it involved an elderly woman, widowed, who was increasingly frail and forgetful. Yet she was reluctant to leave the large home where she’d lived for decades. Her grandson, a university student, needed an affordable place to live. The win-win solution was for the young man to move into what, years before, had been his father’s room, and take on the responsibility for keeping the house maintained and secure. This allowed his grandmother to remain at home for years after she was no longer capable of living alone and gave the grandson rent-free housing.

But that approach, with two generations sharing the same living space, won’t work for many families. The related alternative, sometimes known by the old phrase “mother-in-law apartment,” has many advantages. The newer buzz-word for this is “accessory dwelling unit,” but it means the same thing: a portion of the house, or maybe a detached building in the back yard, or a garage apartment, that has a separate entrance and allows for a balance between proximity and privacy.

A working-age couple with children might create an accessory apartment as a place for an aging parent to live. Or elderly parents might stay in their own home but subdivide it to provide an affordable place for an adult child or grandchild to live. One beauty of the concept is its flexibility. Over time, the older generation in the arrangement might end up needing less space, while the younger might have a growing family. At some point they could trade places between the house’s main living area and the smaller “accessory” apartment.

These arrangements don’t have to be all in the family, by the way. An older homeowner might choose to live in the “accessory” space while renting the rest of the old homestead to a younger, unrelated family.

Many variations are possible, depending on individual circumstances. Rent might provide much-needed income for the owner. Or reduced-rent arrangement might help a disabled relative who works part-time afford to live a largely independent life. The recent college graduate who’s struggling to get by while waiting tables, or the freshly divorced young mother trying to rebuild her life, can all benefit from this kind of close, but separate, relationship with older family members.

As much as members of an extended family might want to be close to each other, differences in lifestyle dictate that everybody is happier if they don’t rub elbows in the same space. That eliminates struggles over kitchen space, tensions about who’s in the bathroom when, or resentments about late nights, early mornings or choice of entertainment.

In fact, despite the up-to-date sound of “accessory dwelling unit,” such arrangements are a throwback to what was once a very common approach to housing. It has become rare in many places, however, because of one major obstacle.

That is restrictive local zoning ordinances. A related obstacle is a negative attitude among many homeowners, who see the presence of rental housing in their neighborhoods as a threat to property values. That is certainly an issue in Wilmington and New Hanover County, where single-family zoning expressly outlaws these kinds of arrangements in many neighborhoods. Many private homeowners’ associations also forbid “mother-in-law” apartments.

Advocates for such shared housing arrangements argue that they actually have many benefits for their communities, not just their own residents. These include a broader mix of ages than are typically in many neighborhoods, reduced turnover, even less crime because of more “eyes” on the street at all times of day. Both the elderly and children benefit from living in “walkable” neighborhoods instead of sterile apartment complexes.

So, what are your options if you’re considering creating some form of accessory dwelling arrangement on your property? First, of course, you need to learn what the rules are. If your neighborhood is governed by a homeowners’ association, find out what the bylaws are. If they are an obstacle, the best way to overcome them is to work with neighbors and the HOA board to amend those rules, explaining the benefits to both individuals and the community.

Even without HOA restrictions, you still have to comply with your jurisdiction’s zoning ordinance and building codes. We won’t attempt to break down the complexities of those regulations here, except to note that “mother-in-law apartments” are allowed in some residential zones, under some circumstances, especially in older neighborhoods with larger lots.

If you find that the zoning rules work against you, it’s the members of your city council or, if outside the city limits, board of county commissioners, who determine just what those rules are. Those elected officials are sensitive, of course, to traditional homeowners’ worries about protecting property values. But they are also well aware that our communities are facing growing challenges to provide affordable housing for working people and to help their constituents safely age in place.

In short: your local representatives should be willing to listen to your concerns and your arguments about how to make housing work better for everybody.

If you are interested in exploring alternative housing arrangements, it’s a good idea to understand how they might fit in with your broader financial objectives. The experts at Old North State Trust can help you structure your portfolio of assets, including real estate, to help meet your goals for retirement.

Old North State Trust, LLC (ONST) periodically produces publications as a service to clients and friends.  The information contained in these publications is intended to provide general information about issues related to trust, investment and estate related topics.  Readers should be aware that the facts may vary depending upon individual circumstances.  The information contained in these publications is intended solely for informational purposes, is proprietary to ONST and is not guaranteed to be accurate, complete or timely.