In 2011 Lesa Dixon-Gray of Portland, Oregon, wanted her 90-year-old mother to move from Miami to live nearby. Her mother, Shirley, was willing, but she wanted her own place. So Dixon-Gray began to look for housing options. First she looked at duplexes. But they all had stairs, not a good option for Shirley.
Then she found the ideal solution: build a small cottage on the same property as Dixon-Gray’s home. Although it took some doing—she and her husband had to move to a place with an over-sized lot on which to build the cottage—the option worked out well for all of them. They each have privacy, yet they are there for each other and regularly dine together. Shirley contributes to household expenses, and she’s formed a close bond with her step-granddaughters.
“It goes back to the relationship,” says Dixon-Gray, of why their housing choic worked out so well. “I’ve always had this great mom. She’s very funny. It’s wonderful that my husband has a great relationship with her. Even though she’s 96 now and physically becoming more dependent, she’s my mom. That’s really the sweet part.”
Families like this one are taking advantage of Portland’s pioneering policy of encouraging accessory dwellings as a way to promote sustainable growth, affordability, and a housing alternative for older people wanting to either stay put or to move near their children. Known in the policy world as “ADUs” – accessory dwelling units– these small homes come in many forms, including traditional basement “mother-in-law suites,” apartments atop or inside garages, and backyard cottages like Dixon-Gray’s. Portland hopes that through zoning changes and fee waivers, the number of ADUs will rapidly expand.
Accessory dwellings are among a growing number of housing options for older people, as I explore in my book, With a Little Help from Our Friends—Creating Community as We Grow Older. From cohousing to cooperative trailer parks, senior artist colonies, house-sharing, or the Village model of neighbors helping neighbors, housing alternatives are blossoming around the country as people seek ways to age in a circle of mutual support. For many, this support comes from family. The challenge is finding the right balance between closeness on the one hand, and privacy and independence on the other. Accessory dwellings fit the bill.
“This idea of multigenerational living is ancient,” says ChangingAging’s Dr. Bill Thomas. “We call them ADUs, but people have been doing this for a long time all over the world.”
Well-known as the founder of the small house nursing home alternative The Green House Project, typically housing 10-12 elders, Dr. Thomas is currently hoping to revolutionize the tiny house movement. For the past year he has been developing a modular, prefab model for rapidly constructing tiny houses that are “optimized for independent living in all phases of life.”
What we need now, he says, “is an ADU that is really designed to support and to maximize the opportunity of people to have their own home and that means having well-designed, small, smart, digitally-aware, and accessible housing.” Dr. Thomas plans to add his voice to ongoing discussions about how best to expand ADUs and to make them accessible when he comes to Portland May 1, as part of the national ChangingAging tour.
A leading proponent of Portland’s ADU policy is Alan DeLaTorre, a research associate at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging and co-coordinator of Age-Friendly Portland. DeLaTorre is convinced that “aging in place” is not always a good option as we age. “It depends on the home,” he says. Many houses that worked well for us when we moved in become too big, too expensive to maintain, and unsafe as we grow older. Too often, he says, “We’ve zoned out creative and innovative housing types. We’ve created strict zoning codes that adhere to NIMBY standards—don’t change my community or the value of my property.”
Instead of being stuck in an aging-in-place mindset, he says, “Aging in community is the option we want to explore. Our communities provide social support, comfort, and familiarity.”
More than a decade ago, Portland began to encourage homeowners to build ADUs as a way to help alleviate a growing lack of affordable close-in housing. ADUs were also seen as a way for older people to downsize, while remaining in their long-time neighborhoods and generating rental income from the main house. Early on, AARP supported ADU development and suggested a model code. In addition to changing zoning codes, the city later waived some development fees to encourage more ADU construction. The hope was that many older people would build ADUs.
But a 2014 report found that older people were no more likely to have ADUs than the Portland population in general. This will likely change substantially in the near future, according to the study. Unlike today’s 75-year-olds and older who show little interest in accessory units, the baby boomers (in the 55-74 year old categories) were most likely of all age groups to have an ADU. As they age, the use of ADUs among the oldest Portlanders will likely grow.
Meanwhile, efforts to make accessory dwellings more attractive are continuing. One novel pilot project in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, will pay for construction of an ADU, in exchange for the homeowner allowing a homeless person or family to live there for up to 5 years. After that, the homeowner would have full use of the ADU. Four families are set to try the experiment this summer.
At the same time a new Residential Infill Project is going to further liberalize zoning as a way to increase housing density. Single-family homes in walkable areas, close to public transit and other services, will be able to build two ADUs, and those with a corner lot may build three. “The zoning codes haven’t been written, but the concept has been approved,” says DeLaTorre, who serves on the stakeholder advisory committee for the project.
Next Step: Accessibility
As part of the zoning code changes, DeLaTorre proposed making “visitability”—a type of accessibility—required of all accessory dwellings. Visitability has three main features: a single-step entry to the home, hallways and doorways that are 36 inches wide or more, and a half-bath on the ground floor. “It’s the least stringent requirement set, regarding broad accessibility or age-friendly design,” he says. Exceptions would be made if the property has site constraints, such as uneven slope. The requirements, though, did not go through, due in part to pushback from developers. “The city council came back with an amendment using language that is very soft—it’s all incentive-based and not visitable. We were disappointed, but we’re pushing forward.”
Eli Spevak, a developer of green, affordable housing who serves on the city’s Planning and Sustainability Commission, is a proponent of ADUs. But he is one who opposes that visitability be required. For one, he argues, many sites would be difficult to make accessible, such as those built above garages or on sloped land. “There’s an unfortunate history in the developments of ADUs of death by 100 paper cuts,” he says. “We want them affordable, and compatible with neighborhoods, and owner-occupied and accessible. Then lo and behold nobody builds any.” (Portland is one of the few places that does not require ADUs to be owner-occupied, although two-thirds of them are.) That said, he suggests that incentives be used instead, such as waiving building fees for visitability.
Developer opposition is not the only obstacle to accessible housing. DeLaTorre says that homeowner denial of their own aging also plays a role. “I was helping my dad find a home here in Portland,” he says. “As an environmental gerontologist I had a specific idea of what he needed. He was wholeheartedly against it. ‘I don’t need to worry about those things. I’m in good health.’” It wasn’t until DeLaTorre changed the conversation to talk about his sister, who has medical issues, did the light go on. Of course he wanted his home to be easier for her to come see him. “That’s what visitability does,” says DeLaTorre. “It softens the need for people to address their own decline in aging.”
Accessory Dwellings Support Sustainable Growth
Robert Liberty, director of Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, supports ADUs from another angle – environmental sustainability. Liberty launched a Small Backyard Homes project https://www.pdx.edu/sustainability/small-backyard-homes-accessory-dwelling-units-adus as a response to Portland’s push to encourage infill development, a key part of the strategy to tackle climate change. “It’s pretty straightforward,” says Liberty. “The single largest source of greenhouse gases is from driving in our region, and the second is from heating and cooling buildings. People who build [ADUs] near the core of the region will have a lot more opportunities to use mass transit or to bike and walk.” The small square footage also costs substantially less to heat and cool.
One obstacle to ADU expansion, Liberty says, is that most homeowners have no experience as developers. In addition to overseeing a construction project, “You have to figure out the permits and fees, and then you’re a landlord,” says Liberty. And it can be costly. Although interior apartment conversions can be $30,000-$40,000, a freestanding, 800-square-foot cottage averages $160,000.
“A lot of people don’t have that kind of equity,” says Liberty. “So our strategy is to address all these things that are hard to do and act as a facilitator or concierge.” Homeowners will be able to go online and find financing packages and accessory dwelling designs that are affordable, accessible, and energy-efficient. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” he says.
The Institute worked with students at Portland State’s Center of Public Interest Design “to think about the challenges in building ADUs and reducing the cost,” explains project manager Beth Gilden. “We decided early on we wanted all of them to be accessible. One of the most important things about ADUs is that people use them differently over time.” Homeowners may first rent out the smaller unit, but “there may be a time in their lives where they have mobility issues, and they want to live in their ADU,” she says.
With the population aging, Liberty sees ADUs as an important piece of the housing puzzle. “This is a way to restore traditional family values, keeping generations together, or allowing continued independence for seniors by having a small, accessible unit, by having income from the main house, or by having close relationships with their own children,” he says. “What we’ve learned here in Portland will have application across the U.S., and it will generate interest in having ADUs across the spectrum that has a particular value for seniors.”
As for Lesa Dixon-Gray, although the challenge of multigenerational living has grown along with her mother’s frailty, she continues to appreciate having the family close together. Shirley, now 96, cannot do many things that she could when she first moved in—cooking, taking the bus, bathing without help. A part-time caregiver helps out. Still, she goes grocery shopping with her daughter, sitting in the grocery café, and reminding Dixon-Gray not to forget the challah bread. “And she still wins at bridge,” says Dixon-Gray.
She and her husband have not been able to travel for the last three years, and even finding an accessible restaurant can be challenging. But having her mom live in the backyard has been 90 percent positive, she says. “For us, it’s working pretty well. It’s a choice we’ve made. And I know someday we’ll be able to travel. Everything goes in phases.”