As older people begin to outnumber young people in the United States over the next decade, advocacy groups are urging states to abandon single-family zoning in favor of housing solutions that allow older people to “age in place.”
By 2035, the United States will have more people over 65 than under 18, a first in the country’s history. According to recent census data, the United States is short on aging-ready housing, with only 40% of the country’s housing considered accessible enough to meet the basic needs of older adults.
AARP, for example, is lobbying state by state for two housing approaches: the development of so-called middle housing, such as duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes, and the allowance of accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats or in-law suites.
Some states overhauled single-family zoning practices this year, which advocates say have not aged well with the graying population.
Many older adults live in areas where most residential lots are zoned for single-family detached homes, making multifamily housing such as duplexes or condominiums impossible to build. According to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on social and economic policy, such rules can disconnect older adults from their community and from critical services such as transportation by prioritizing the construction of low-density development.
As state lawmakers consider relaxing zoning rules to allow for more housing, advocates for older adults are participating by lobbying legislators, posting policy positions, and speaking up at local zoning meetings.
“We don’t have housing that’s built for people of all ages,” Rodney Harrell, AARP’s vice president of family, home, and community, told Stateline.
While an increased supply of diverse and affordable housing would benefit all populations, Harrell pointed out that more middle housing and a shift away from car-centric development would benefit older adults on fixed incomes in particular.
“A key issue is that a vast majority of our neighborhoods are exclusively single-family zoning,” he went on to say. “That doesn’t leave a lot of housing options to meet the needs of our aging population.”
This year, Washington state overhauled single-family zoning across the state to allow for more middle-income housing, a move praised by AARP as beneficial to the state’s older adults and caregivers.
AARP Washington has been working on zoning changes with legislators and housing advocates for nearly a decade, according to Cathy MacCaul, AARP’s Washington advocacy director.
AARP has been urging planning experts and local and state decisionmakers across the country to conduct “code audits” to investigate ways to modernize zoning and code language.
The HOME Act, which was passed this year in Vermont, allows the development of duplexes in all single-family residential zones.
California, Maine, and Oregon have also abandoned single-family zoning. Oregon became the first state to abolish single-family zoning in 2019. California removed parking requirements for developments near public transportation last year in order to encourage more housing construction in those areas.
In Maine, legislators in 2022 began requiring municipalities to allow the construction of ADUs and duplexes on land zoned for single-family housing.
Few states have implemented such drastic changes. However, Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ Housing an Aging Society program, believes that advocating for aging adults at the county and city levels — where most zoning decisions are made — is critical to creating more housing that is accessible for older adults.
“Zoning meetings may not be the most enjoyable thing to do during the week. But that is where it is taking place. “This is where the decisions are made,” Molinsky explained. “Advocacy for aging at these meetings could go a long way in making sure [older adults] are being factored in these decisions.”
Poverty among the elderly is increasing as the country ages. According to a National Council on Aging analysis of Census Bureau data, the poverty rate among American adults 65 and older increased from 10.7% in 2021 to 14.1% in 2022.
According to the Urban Institute, more than 10 million households headed by someone 65 or older spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities.
There aren’t enough homes that these families can afford, according to Harrell.
“We need to start to build these new types of housing now before we see this drastic demographic shift,” Harrell told the crowd. “It takes time to construct new housing.” We can get ahead of the affordability and supply crises if we start now.”
According to AARP, the country will face a housing shortage by 2030 to meet the needs of the 1 in 5 Americans who will be over the age of 65.
Accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats, mother-in-law suites, or simply ADUs, are among the middle-class housing options that many advocates have supported. They may be constructed in basements, over garages, or as separate, small structures on the same lots as larger single-family homes.
According to MacCaul, AARP’s Washington advocacy director, the versatility of these units allows older adults to live near their family or caregivers, keeping them connected to a support system.
According to the organization’s 2021 survey, roughly three-quarters of adults aged 50 and up want to stay in their current homes and communities and “age in place.”
“In terms of policy, we use aging in place as a kind of North Star.” “The challenge is that many states have systems that were not designed for our aging population,” MacCaul explained.
“Our housing system, our financing system and transportation infrastructure have not kept up with the aging population,” she went on to say. “A majority of our systems have been built for young families, not the baby boomers who are now 60 and older.”
This year, Washington state reduced barriers to the construction of accessory dwelling units, such as owner-occupancy requirements and construction fees, while Montana legalized ADUs statewide.
“When we have zoning that restricts what we can build, where we can build and what we can build it, how can we solve this housing crisis?” Montana state Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican, was one of the lawmakers pushing for changes. “Communities are designed to evolve. They cannot remain static while excluding people in a housing crisis.”
In Massachusetts, Democratic Gov. Maura Healey’s housing plan would preempt local zoning by requiring all municipalities to allow homeowners to add ADUs. Maine municipalities have until 2024 to comply with state law and allow ADUs to be built alongside existing single-family homes.
North Carolina’s bipartisan effort to allow ADUs on single-family lots was inspired by a conversation with bill sponsor Rep. Matthew Winslow’s late mother. The bill was approved by the House last spring, but it is still pending in the Senate.
“Before she died, she told me, ‘I don’t want to go into elderly care.'” I don’t want to live in a village or in an assisted living facility… “So we let her stay at our house,” said Republican Winslow.
“I imagine there are other families who would love to have their parents or in-laws with them, but these regulations on ADUs make it costly or frankly don’t allow it at all.”
States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy, owns Stateline.