Joann Sullivan on March 7th, 2016

smiling-seniors-75white househouse in the air

A few months ago the American Society on Aging invited me to write an article on my favorite topic–Housing Options for Seniors.  The article appeared in a special housing issue of Aging Today which appeared in November 2015.

Wanted: safe, affordable— and pragmatic—housing options for older adults

By Joann Sullivan

Everyone needs a place to live. Though many retirees face housing costs they cannot afford, there are many options available.  
I am a realtor in Berkeley, Calif., and specialize in working with older adult homebuyers and sellers. Previously I was an administrator in a geriatrics clinic and have many years of experience working with elders. Though I no longer work with older adults in the healthcare setting, I now help them with their housing issues.

Help with the High Costs of Housing

A few years ago, I started working with The Transition Network , a national organization for professional women older than 50 who are experiencing transition in their lives. The local TTN chapter decided to focus on housing, a critical issue for older women in the San Francisco Bay Area, where supply is low and costs are the highest in the nation. The median cost of a two-bedroom, one-bath home in Berkeley is $969,000; in San Francisco it is $1,076,000. Median rents are comparably high: $3,849 for a two-bedroom apartment in the East Bay and $4,225 in San Francisco. In response, we formed TTN- HOME.

Remarkably, almost everyone (90 percent of Americans, according to AARP) prefers to age in place. But the participants in our TTN-HOME groups tell us they want to age in community with myriad opportunities for interaction and support.

One of TTN-HOME’s first projects was to identify the 12 housing options for older adults.  We categorized them into four groups: Aging in Place; Shared Housing; Aging in Com- munity; and Institutional Housing.

Twelve Housing Options for Older Adults

  1. Aging in place in your own home

  2. Aging in place in a rental
  3. Downsizing to a smaller house/condo/co-op/apartment
  4. Accessory Dwelling Units (and Tiny Houses)
  5. Sharing your home with others
  6. Buying or renting a house together
  7. Sharing a rented house with a landlord
  8. Pocket neighborhoods
  9. Co-housing (senior or multi-generational)
  10. Housing cooperatives (including limited equity)
  11. Affordable senior housing
  12. Retirement communities

Options for Sharing a Home  An excellent option for older adult home- owners looking to age in community is to share their homes. TTN-HOME has been working with our local Villages—Ashby Village in Berkeley and Next Village in San Francisco—to introduce the concept of home-sharing as a way for members to age in their own homes. In my Berkeley neighborhood, an elderly homeowner rents two 500-square-foot units in her house for $2,000 per month. She enjoys the security and companionship of having other people in her house, and the extra income.

Home-sharing is also catching on in other parts of the country. The University of Michigan, realizing the many advantages for its retirees, has established a HomeShare  program as part of its Senior Housing Bureau to help match homeowners with potential renters. And the Los Angeles County HomeShare program matches homeowners older than age 55 with potential renters.

Buying a home together is another option. In My House, Our House, authors Karen Bush, Louise Machinist and Jean McQuillin describe setting up their cooperative household:

“We devised our own way to live economically, reaping rich advantages: savings in money, time, labor and environmental impact. We created a small community that is also rich in mutual support and fun. . . .  we enhanced each member’s lifestyle, at the same time protecting privacy and independence.”

Their experiment was so successful that two of the authors of the book have recently bought their second home together—a condominium in Florida.

Pocket Neighborhoods
and Accessory Dwellings
 For many, a good option is moving to a pocket neighborhood, a style of housing that fosters a strong sense of community among near- by neighbors, while preserving the need for privacy. Often, pocket neighborhoods are grouped around a courtyard or common garden, designed to promote a close-knit sense of community and neighborliness with an increased level of contact among residents.

In Berkeley and Oakland we have many bungalow courts built in the 1920s, cul- de-sacs or neighborhoods built around parks that function as pocket neighbor- hoods. Similar communities exist in many condominium associations, houseboat marinas and some established neighborhoods.

But not every neighborhood or condominium complex is a thriving pocket neighborhood. It is important to assess the neighborhood’s culture and the people who live there, and whether there are regularly scheduled social events and community projects.

Another option is the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) , a smaller self-contained unit located on the same property as a single family home. ADUs enable older adults to stay in their neighborhoods as they age, with the sup- port of a caregiver or family member or the income of a tenant (to help with the costs of aging). Many cities, including Berkeley , are looling at ADUs as a way to increase density, enable multi-generational families to live together and allow older adults to age in their own neighborhoods.

An important consideration for elders is the unit’s long-term accessibility. Building wider doorways, varied height countertops and no-step thresholds will save on costly modifications later. The Inspired In-Law, designed by Larson Shores Architects in Oakland is the only accessible unit that I’ve heard of. These units range from 465 to 765 square feet, and start at $225,000 for a complete dwelling installed on the homeowner’s property. The advantage of these pre-fabricated units is that buyers know up front how much it will cost and how long it will take to construct.

Tiny Houses Offer
Freedom, Flexibility
  Tiny Houses  are the newest option. Officially defined as less than 1,000 square feet, many are be- tween 100 and 400 square feet. Forty per- cent of Tiny Homeowners are older than age 55, and 68 percent do not have a mort- gage. Tiny Houses are less expensive to build and maintain than conventional structures and allow for more freedom and flexibility. Many are quite elaborate. The cost of an average Tiny Home is $200–$400 per square foot, compared to median prices of $688 per square foot in Berkeley and $954 per square foot in San Francisco for regular houses. Many Tiny Homes are built on wheels and can be moved from place to place.

There are disadvantages (e.g., intense downsizing is required), but the biggest obstacle is where to put your Tiny House. If the home is built on a foundation in the homeowner’s (or a friend’s) backyard, it is like an ADU. Those units might be able to use the utility resources of the primary dwelling.

But the mobile Tiny Houses are more like recreational vehicles and are subject to the same zoning requirements. They can be parked in an RV or mobile home park where utility connections are available. Some cities have regulations about the length of time an RV can be parked on the street.

If people are thinking about a Tiny House, these are important considerations. They might want to visit The Caravan Motor Hotel in Portland, Ore., the first Tiny House motel in the country, before making a decision.

Leave a Reply