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"Granny Pods": The Unlikely Intersection of Aging and Zoning

Have you heard the buzz about "Granny Pods" or "elderly cottage additions"? As our population of individuals aged 65 and older increases over the next several decades, if you haven't heard about them yet, you will.

First, some statistics. According to the Center for Housing Policy (the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference), in its very intriguing 2012 report, Housing an Aging Population: Are We Prepared?:

By 2050, the population of individuals aged 65 or older will increase 120 percent from 40 million to more than 88 million; put another way, one in every five Americans will be 65+. The numbers of Americans aged 85 or older will more than triple over the same period to 19 million. Demand for housing will shift dramatically and the need for services to help older adults age in place will grow exponentially. (emphasis added)

To date, some of the standard housing options for this age group have included long-term care facilities (such as nursing homes), assisted living facilities, retirement or 55+ adult communities, and living within a family member or other caretaker's home. Financial costs and the ability of the elderly individual to live independently are but two of the considerations that must be made with respect to housing our aging population.

Enter the "Granny Pod". The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal MarketWatch, New York Times, and MSN Money recently ran some very good articles about these structures, complete with graphics and videos. They are certainly worth checking out.

Within the building industry they are more commonly referred to as "auxiliary dwelling units" or ADUs. ADUs are, in essence, small-scale, free-standing (in most cases), modular homes for elderly individuals. ADUs are meant to be placed on the same residential lot as a relative or caretaker's existing home. They serve as an alternative to placing elderly family members in a long-term care facility (like a nursing home) or within the caretaker's own home, all of which often create a host of different kinds of financial, logistical and emotional strain for families. While not cheap, in many cases ADUs offer a less costly housing alternative for families and elderly individuals, especially those that want to live close to each other.

But it begs the question, how do ADUs work from a zoning or permitting perspective? Most zoning codes do not allow for more than one principal residential dwelling (building) on a lot within most single-family or even two- or multiple-family zoning districts. And even if they are considered "accessory structures"-which is certainly debatable when considering the traditional use of that term-the size and footprint of these homes appears to be much larger than a typical shed or like structure, making compliance with minimum setbacks and lot coverage ratios difficult at best. Notwithstanding the zoning hurdles that must be overcome in most communities, placing these structures on a given residential lot might also lead to less than neighborly relations, as is evidenced by this "Letter to the Editor" which ran in the Washington Post after the above-referenced article.

Slowly, some communities are adapting to this kind of housing option. As pointed out in the WSJ MarketWatch article, at least a few states (like Virginia, New York and California) have enacted or are considering legislation that allow local zoning codes to be overridden. For example, since 2010 Virginia has allowed placement of ADUs on a residential lot with an existing dwelling if there is a medical need for such housing.

So far, it does not appear that Massachusetts is presently considering any similar legislation. But it remains to be seen whether, with the increasingly older population, our state and others are headed in a direction similar to Virginia. If it does, the issue of density, particularly in more urban or thickly settled residential zones should be taken into consideration, as well as how to calculate tax assessments, mitigate burdens on existing infrastructure and whether some or all zoning requirements may be overridden. It will certainly be interesting to see how these issues play out over the next few decades.

Written by Kristen M. Ploetz, Esq., of Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC, on behalf of Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. Edited by Jeffrey T. Angley, Esq.

Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is general in nature and for educational purposes only. No personal legal advice is being provided. If you have an actual legal issue that needs to be addressed, you should seek the advice of competent legal counsel. This post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C., Phillips & Angley or their attorneys.

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