The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 26, 2015

This affordable old house: How zoning can help seniors age in place

Americans are getting older. As our diverse population of older adults continues to grow, policymakers and service providers face the difficult task of crafting affordable aging in place strategies that promote independence and well-being. Housing policy is an important part of that: while 90 percent of adults age 65 and up want to age in their own homes, more and more seniors live on fixed incomes, and housing can be a major financial burden

The Urban Institute, in partnership with the Stanford Center on Longevity and with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, convened a roundtable in September to tackle these pressing issues.  Forty researchers, practitioners and policymakers gathered for two days of ideating and workshopping, brainstorming models ranging from an Aging with Attitude television show to a Match.com business model for home care providers, and everything in-between. A proposal for the federal government to facilitate the design of a model age-friendly zoning code garnered widespread interest from roundtable participants.

Our existing zoning codes fail everyone, particularly older adults

Land-use regulations remain largely under the control of local jurisdictions, which have often used zoning codes to restrict the permitting of higher-density development. Limits on multifamily structures, minimum setbacks, and controls on the addition of accessory-dwelling units (like in-law suites) are only several of many examples. The economic repercussions of such moves are devastating: research shows such regulatory constraints in high-productivity cities cost the United States 9.5 percent in GDP.

The detrimental effects of existing zoning codes are especially felt by older adults. Restrictive zoning regulations that promote the construction of low-density development disconnect older adults from their community and limit access to vital goods, services, and resources. Existing rules fail to provide older adults with the affordable options needed to age in place in an independent, safe, and healthy manner.

Components of a model age-friendly zoning code

An age-friendly zoning code should provide a variety of affordable housing and transportation options, connect individuals to community resources, and promote independence and healthy lifestyles. Here’s what that would entail:

  • Allowing for a variety of dwelling types: Multi-unit development—including apartments, accessory-dwelling units, and cohousing—can play a large role in placing affordable and socially connected housing options on the table.  
  • Emphasizing connectivity to the community: Mixed-used development and development near public transportation connect older adults to the hospitals, grocery stores, parks, recreation centers, and libraries they need to stay healthy and engaged.
  • Creating an age-friendly infrastructure: Grid-based layouts with shorter blocks, good street lighting, ample signage, accessible elevators and ramps, and well-regulated traffic can create neighborhoods where older adults feel safe and empowered to travel and remain active in their community. The World Health Organization, AARP, and several cities already have useful toolkits discussing necessary infrastructure changes to facilitate aging in place.

Federal government can play an advisory role in creating age-friendly zoning codes

Zoning codes vary considerably across the United States, with many of the most restrictive found in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of older adults already live in jurisdictions with restrictive zoning, and those populations are expected to increase significantly.

The federal government might not be in a position to directly take on local land control issues, but it should take a leading role in creating a model code for states and local jurisdictions to use. Creating a model age-friendly zoning code requires a body of research and consensus building around what components best facilitate aging in place. By acting now, we will have useful tools at our disposal when local jurisdictions finally decide to face the reality of our aging population and inadequate housing supply.

In this May 11, 2015 photo, Al Karp, right foreground, and his wife Saundra, left, dance to the music their son Larry plays on the piano at their home in North Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

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