Housing Options for Older Adults

(We originally published this article here in May of 2012. It’s as relevant today as it was then.)

In recent years, the field of housing has reversed a long-standing assumption that older adults need to move along a housing continuum, from one setting to another, as they require greater assistance.  The traditional continuum incorporated a range of options including age-restricted housing, congregate housing, continuing care, assisted living, and nursing homes.  While a range of housing types to meet the needs of older adults is necessary, trends in the housing field support the notion that older adults do not necessarily need to move when they require assistance.  Instead, a greater emphasis is being placed on residents remaining in their residential settings as well as bringing services to them.  This trend is popularly known as “aging in place.”

According to a recent AARP survey, Americans overwhelmingly want to stay in their own homes and communities as they age, even if they need assistance caring for themselves.

However, in some cases neither staying within one’s own home nor entering an adult living center is either feasible or desirable.  An alternative is to provide accessory dwelling units (ADU) in conjunction with a primary residence to accommodate an aging relative.

Such ADU housing typically takes one of three forms:

  • Accommodating the individual within the primary residence without major internal or external modification.
  • Accommodating the individual by expanding the primary residence with an accessory dwelling unit.  A common use term for this alternative is “mother-in-law apartment.”  However, I have often wondered if this is a message that fathers-in-law are not welcome!
  • Locating a separate detached housing unit on the primary residence property to accommodate the individual.  The common term for this alternative is ECHO housing (Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity).  Such units can either be permanent or      temporary.

In general, ADUs are most commonly understood to be a separate additional living unit, including separate kitchen, sleeping, and bathroom facilities, attached or detached from the primary residential unit, on a single-family lot.  ADUs are usually subordinate in size, location, and appearance to the primary unit.

Attached units, contained within a single-family home, known variously as “mother-in-law apartments,” “accessory apartments,” or “second units,” are the most common types of accessory dwelling units.  Accessory apartments usually involve the renovation of a garage, basement, attached shed, or similar space in a single-family home.

Less common are detached “accessory cottages” or “echo homes,” which are structurally independent from the primary residence.  These units are often constructed or installed to provide housing for elderly parents being cared for by their adult children.  Accessory cottages are permanent structures, while echo homes are temporary and moveable.

Regulatory Issues and Options

Depending upon the alternative form chosen, ADUs can be controversial when introduced into a neighborhood setting.  The primary issue raised is what happens to the ADU when no longer used by a family member.  The common concern expressed from other homeowners is that when an ADU is no longer occupied by the family member, it becomes a rental unit that can be occupied by an unrelated individual; thus in a single-family neighborhood you end up with two dwellings on a single lot.

Many of the potentially objectionable effects of ADUs can be avoided by regulating size, compatibility with the existing residence, number of occupants, and overall design.  In general, requiring the ADU to be attached to the principal residence is the most common form of regulation.  Allowing detached units is not very common, and is generally more expensive.  It is also more difficult to make a detached unit compatible with what is otherwise a single-family neighborhood.

Regarding the issue of occupancy when the aging family member is gone, there are no easy answers.  Many regulations are written to allow residents to install an ADU for the limited purpose of providing in-home care to aging parents while maintaining separate living areas.

ADU proponents argue that restrictions based on the age or familial status of tenants may discourage some homeowners from installing an ADU because of the risk of losing their investment in the event that their tenant moves away or dies.

Restrictions on the age of tenants and their relationship to homeowners may also be difficult to enforce.  When relatives die or move away, homeowners will be left with an empty and unusable apartment and may be tempted to fill the vacancy in violation of the ordinance.  It may be difficult for a community to keep tabs on the status of ADU tenants.

For more information on housing options for older adults, contact Dick Carlisle at rcarlisle@cwaplan.com or 734-662-2200.