'Granny flats' could be answer for many family caregivers
A year ago, Vorng Thep’s parents lived in an apartment they couldn’t afford, in an area at least 15 minutes from their closest adult child.
As a couple in their 80s, they increasingly needed more care when it came to cooking, cleaning and transportation to appointments. Apartments like theirs in San Jose, California, cost between $1,800 and $3,000 a month, and leasing at an assisted living facility or buying a small home closer to their children was even more expensive.
But thanks to recent changes in California state law, the family had an unconventional option that started with an empty garage.
Between 2017 and 2019, California passed a series of laws that legalized accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in all California cities, and removed most barriers to their development. Other states and communities, including Rochester, are weighing doing the same.
Often called “granny units” or “granny flats,” ADUs are an accessible, lower-cost housing option for older parents or relatives who want to live near adult children and their families, and may require more day-to-day care than their loved ones can provide from a distance. They are also used to house college students or renters, or to create an extra work or play space for families.
In brainstorming better housing solutions for his parents, Thep, who lives in San Francisco, considered the idea of building out a living space in the garage of a house he owns in the San Jose area. The main house is home to his sister and her family, without room for the parents, although Thep’s sister was willing and able to offer increased care for their needs.
Months later, an attached garage on the property was transformed into a small, bright living space, private but just steps from family members.
"It’s not just for aging parents," Thep said. "This is a stepping stone to set them up, not just for older people but for the kids."
Momentum for ADUs as caregiving needs grow
As the aging population grows in the U.S., families are seeking comfortable spaces and an increased level of support for their loved ones.
But finding support isn’t always easy. Those seeking to provide care to loved ones, particularly families of color living in multigenerational settings, face a shortage of home health aides, and often medical personnel aren’t sensitive to their needs. Racial inequality, poverty or language differences can be barriers to receiving quality medical care or social services, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these concerns.
ADUs are viewed by advocates as having the potential to assist families in many ways, including creating working-from-home space. Yet it is in easing a family's caregiving burdens as the nation's baby boomers age that these units have the potential to meet a deep societal need.
“(Caregivers) are trying to make literal spaces in their lives for their families, and they can’t do it,” said EJ Santos, clinical division chief with geriatric mental health and memory care at the University of Rochester. She frequently works with caregiving families on supportive care for their loved ones.
“It would be a great idea if there was a way to do that where they could be close by and yet not intrusive. This is a way for people to keep their independence, and yet still have that support of family that’s right there,” Santos said.
She is currently working with multiple families who are looking for a more affordable housing solution for an older parent or relative, but who can’t have that individual in the home with them because of space limitations or personal relationship tensions, she said.
What ADUs have going for them is momentum as the needs of urban neighborhoods are receiving more attention in places like San Jose and Rochester. Many planners see benefits in older relatives living adjacent to loved ones instead of being isolated in homes they can no longer tend to or in care facilities.
Obstacles to ADUs becoming a common solution to family caregiving needs, however, are plentiful. Among them: The need to change local zoning laws. The costs associated with building an ADU or refurbishing outbuildings to make them habitable. And the potential hassle for a homeowner at every step of the way, navigating zoning approval, construction and then move-in of loved ones in need of substantial TLC.
"We have the cost conversation a lot with caregivers, particularly caregivers in underserved communities," said Dina Johnson, director of care and support at the Alzheimer's Association of the Rochester/Finger Lakes region. Forty-one percent of caregivers caring for someone with dementia make $50,000 or less in household income, according to the Alzheimer's Association 2020 Facts and Figures report.
"There's a balance of cost (of housing) and other measures that can allow my loved one to live in place, like 24-hour care," Johnson said.
As in many other states, New York doesn’t have a comprehensive statewide stance on accessory dwellings, but some cities, like Rochester, are working to expand and revamp zoning codes to allow for ADUs or other more innovative housing solutions.
New York Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who has a son with autism, proposed a bill in 2016 that would establish a loan program for accessory apartments for seniors or adults with disabilities. But the legislation never gained traction. This year, New York City discussed the legalization of basement apartments as an affordable housing option for residents there, with Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing plans in February to help bring these apartments up to code using low-interest loans.
A closer look at accessory dwelling units
An ADU often takes the form of a small, free-standing building on a residential property that contains a kitchen and bathroom, and sometimes one or more bedrooms, depending on the size. The structure can also be built as an addition to an existing home, or inside a garage or similar property building. In contrast to "tiny homes," ADUs are typically larger, immobile and must be constructed on a residential property with an already existing house.
Parts of California have welcomed ADUs for decades while others operated under much stricter rules. This created a complex patchwork of local regulations that was difficult for residents and builders to navigate. The new laws relaxed regulations around setback requirements, minimum lot sizes and other elements that previously made building ADUs difficult in some areas.
Legislative changes at the state and local levels appear to have opened the floodgates for ADU permits in parts of California, including San Jose, where ADU permits issued per year went from 192 in 2018 to 416 in 2019, according to BuildinganADU.com.
In Redwood City, a smaller city in the Bay Area, ADU permit issuance doubled during the same period.
The idea appears to be popular among older homeowners: 84% of people 50 and older would construct an ADU in order to provide a home for a loved one in need of care, and according to a 2018 study on ADUs conducted by AARP.
The federal government backed the idea of accessory dwellings in the 1990s, with a Task Force on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing recommending removing restrictions on accessory apartments to enable elders to age in place, according to 2008 research in the Journal of Aging and Policy.
Data on the effectiveness of ADUs for caregiving families is scarce, beyond anecdotal evidence and numbers illuminating their popularity in cities where they're legal and encouraged.
California's openness to ADUs is part of the state’s strategy to tackle its crushing housing market, which with runaway prices and low housing stock threatens to shut out residents who’ve been living in Bay Area cities like San Francisco or San Jose for decades.
Pair these factors with a booming aging population in San Jose, and ADUs present an ideal and beneficial solution for many residents, said Cheryl Wessling, public information manager for the City of San José’s Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement.
“There may be a couple in their seventies or eighties who would be very comfortable in an 800- to 1,200 square-foot ADU. They don't need a 2,000-square-foot home, but they're kind of trapped from having purchased so long ago,” she said.
“You see a lot of older people who bought their homes 40, 50 years ago, who don't necessarily need a big home to live in anymore.”
‘A benefit for everyone’
The garage where Thep planned to build the ADU was heated and could be connected to the main home’s electrical system and water supply. He worked with a contractor to transform the space into a one-bedroom ADU. The sticker price was $294,000 -- less than half of Thep’s estimated cost of a small home -- though he ended up paying several thousand more after unexpected building expenses.
Acton ADU, an offshoot of Acton Construction, which has been building in the San Jose area for over 30 years, handled the design, permitting and buildout work for the project, which took about a year to complete. That’s about four months longer than is typical, due to COVID-19.
During the pandemic, San Jose implemented pre-approved ADU plans to speed up the permitting and building process.
Caregiving families make up the bulk of Acton’s customer base, said James Parks, the company’s head of marketing.
California’s housing trends and the flood of baby boomers heading into retirement are pushing residents to crunch the numbers for housing and care for their older loved ones -- making creative options like ADUs increasingly common.
Thep’s build ended up hitting more roadblocks than he expected, including a new stucco job on part of the garage exterior, which ultimately raised the price beyond what he originally thought he’d pay for it. But it was worth it given the cost of other options -- a two-bedroom home would run around $800,000 in the area -- and the ADU will add value to the home over time.
The arrangement is particularly advantageous for older parents or relatives who are well enough to help with child care, he said, which is reminiscent of family structures in Cambodia, his family’s country of origin.
“If your parents are not old but retired, and if you have family and grandkids, they could watch your family because they’re next door,” Thep said. “But they still have their own privacy and they don’t feel like they’re intruding. It’s a benefit for everyone.”
Acton’s most typical build results in a detached structure in a backyard, as opposed to a reimagined interior of an already existing structure, which can bring additional building and zoning challenges, Parks said.
To build an ADU, families must own residential property, and most use a home equity loan or line of credit to finance the projects, Parks said. “Most folks that own a house would have equity to do this,” he said.
Adaptable for lower incomes
Even with relatively accessible financing options, building an ADU can be difficult for lower-income families.
In Santa Cruz, about a 30-mile drive south of San Jose on the Pacific Coast, Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay (Habitat) partnered with the County of Santa Cruz and Senior Network Services, a social services organization for seniors, to create My House My Home, which is meant to help low-income senior homeowners build ADUs.
The goal of the program is to build ADUs on the properties of qualifying low-income seniors, 62 years of age or older, providing additional income and adjustable living situations to help seniors age in place.
With the ever-growing population of seniors aging, no one understands the issue like David Foster, former executive director with Habitat Monterey Bay who oversaw the organization's growing ADU program. Before his parents died, they were advancing in age and could no longer afford to live in their home.
Foster bought the house from his parents, who then moved into an apartment, which they found to be isolating.
Shortly after that transition, Foster began working with the city of Santa Cruz to change regulations surrounding ADUs, which began in earnest in 2003.
Two years later, the ADU was completed and Foster’s parents were able to move back into their old neighborhood, where they had lived for 40 years and had a successful support network.
“My dad had Alzheimer's, so having them right next door for easy access made caregiving much easier,” Foster said.
Care facilities are often booked up and can be expensive, and older adults often want to stay in their own homes anyway, Foster said. Granny units allow family members to provide much needed care, he said.
His parents lived in the ADU for 7 years before they passed away. The granny unit is now serving extended family members.
“My dad had Alzheimer's, so having them right next door for easy access made caregiving much easier." -- David Foster
Some people turn to the ADU option when they need a second income. For example, a senior resident Foster worked with owned a small two-bedroom house, but was unable to pay her mortgage. She considered selling her home, but later converted her garage into an illegal ADU and rented it to a disabled friend who relied on the city’s housing authority's Section 8 program.
Habitat came in and built a brand new ADU that was wheelchair-accessible and replaced the garage that was there.
“By building a granny unit for them, it allowed them to bring in additional rental income so that they could keep their home,” Foster said. “I think that's worked out really nicely and actually saved some people from having to actually leave town because they couldn't continue to afford their unit.”
Allowing accessory dwelling units to be developed in California and in other states is a real movement, Foster said. The more that they can show the positive results from projects in California and Portland, Oregon, the better, he said.
“By subsidizing ADUs and providing sufficient financing, they can become affordable housing integrated throughout communities and not only segregated to high density, low-income housing areas,” Foster said.
“As our population continues to grow, the choice is either to build into the countryside and high-fire-hazard suburban areas, or begin building at higher densities in single family residential zones, allowing more housing to be built.”
A flexible space on a budget
For some families, the hassle of building a dwelling in their backyard may seem as overwhelming as the potential cost of the project.
Abodu, another ADU company building in the San Jose area, focuses on that issue by offering prefabricated modular ADUs for around $200,000, which would be a payment of between $900 and $950 per month with a home equity line of credit, said John Geary, Abodu’s CEO and co-founder.
Abodu offers three ADU sizes and construction, permitting and installation takes around three months, with only 10 to 15 days of active construction in a customer’s backyard, thanks to the prefabrication model, said Geary.
Redwood City resident Todd Parsons was drawn to Abodu’s prefabrication model, its clean architecture and hometown appeal as a company -- Adobu was launched in the same area. Parsons’ mother-in-law, Marge, in her 70s, was living in a home with stairs and other elements that could become problematic as she aged.
Buying a house big enough to allow Marge to live with Parsons’ family, including his wife, Jen, and their two children, would run them at least $1.8 million in the area, Parsons said. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic solidified the ADU idea as the cheapest and best next step for Marge’s housing.
Redwood City has been in the process of changing its regulations around ADUs and aligning them with California state law.
The Parsons’ ADU and related costs, including an add-on deck and tri-fold glass door, came in at about $245,000. The family received about $3,000 in credits after referring neighbors to Abodu for potential ADU jobs. Some are getting an ADU as a visiting space for parents, while others are looking into them as work or multi-use spaces for their immediate households.
“In other high-rent areas, this is kind of a no-brainer,” said Parsons. “I have no regrets. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
ADUs in Rochester?
In order for ADUs to become a viable option for property owners, a city or other municipality would likely have to tweak or rewrite its building and zoning codes to allow for more flexible property use.
ADUs are not currently allowed in Rochester. But the city is moving in that direction, zoning-wise, with its new comprehensive plan, Rochester 2034, which was adopted in 2019.
The city recently contracted with a consultant to help revamp the zoning code in the next two years, which will pave the way for increased density and creative housing options, said Gary Kirkmire, commissioner of the department of neighborhood and business development.
“Our new code, if we’re successful in getting everybody to agree, will reduce barriers to creating ADUs in all districts,” Kirkmire said, adding that they’ll prioritize loosening limitations on housing occupations and allowing more live/work space.
The city plans to decrease its low-density residential space, while increasing occupational allowance in its medium-density areas. These changes reflect a shift in neighborhood trends since the city’s last rezoning in 2003, when Rochester’s zoning regulations were tightened to combat residential overcrowding.
Now, residents are more amenable to work-from-home space and the idea of small homes and minimalist living, Kirkmire said.
“The regulations we have now don’t align with what’s in the world today,” he said. “We’re going to look at density in a more positive light than in the past.”
Still, Rochester doesn’t have the same housing issues as California’s Bay area -- in fact, the city has been focused on decreasing vacant homes in the past decade -- so the need for housing options like ADUs is less severe.
Additionally, homeowners may be skeptical of the ADU concept, because density and renters are often perceived as undesirable, Kirkmire said. But allowing new types of housing could be a game-changer for caregiving families or those who need rental income.
“Renting is foreign and evil and negative (to some residents,) but there is another perspective from the people who’ve actually had life experiences in terms of needing extra space,” he said.
This story was produced through the New York & Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations and universities dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about successful responses to social problems. The group is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
The collaborative’s first series, Invisible Army: Caregivers on the Front Lines, focuses on potential solutions to challenges facing caregivers of older adults.