In-law apartments a boost for housing, supporting seniors


America has an infrastructure and housing problem, and the Vineyard is right in the thick of it: Baby boomers are aging, and the infrastructure isn’t there to meet the demand. 

The New York Times reports that in the next 10 years, there will be more Americans over 65 than children, and that 10,000 boomers are turning 65 every day.

On the Vineyard, 1 in 3 Islanders is currently over 60, as reported recently by Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard — a significant number. In the next couple of years, it is estimated that up to 25 percent of Islanders over 60 will be 85 or older.

There are several challenges that come with aging in place: Do we have the services, can our seniors access transportation, groceries, healthcare; and are our businesses ready to meet that demand?

One of the biggest questions is where the elderly will live out the remainder of their lives. With the vast majority of houses on the Island single-family homes, and with only one nursing home, it’s safe to assume that our seniors will either have to move off-Island, or remain in what could be remote areas, with a risk of becoming isolated. The science isn’t exact, but the CDC says that isolation comes with a whole slew of issues, most notably unhappiness and premature death.

There are a number of potential solutions to help. One obvious choice is building more housing designed for seniors. A development might include communal areas in a downtown area with access to services, such as a proposal called Edgartown Gardens, where a developer wants to build more than 60 apartments — the majority for 55-year-olds and older. Also in the works is a new, larger, skilled nursing facility, also in Edgartown, under the name Navigator Homes.

But one smart choice with a lot of potential is the creation of accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, or likely by its more popular and somewhat derogatory term, the in-law apartment. 

Under the idea, a homeowner builds a separate apartment, whether it’s above a garage, a walk-in basement, or detached from the main house. The apartments can provide a young worker a place to rent, and the concept would allow a young family to live alongside the older generation. A family with kids could live in the main, larger house, while the grandparents live in a more compact location, designed to meet their needs. 

While living with your parents may not sound appealing, consider some of the benefits. Childcare is an equally compounding problem on the Island, compared with housing our seniors; with an ADU, grandparents could step in to help look after their grandkids. Also, family is right next door if there is a health emergency. And likely the biggest upside is preventing isolation. 

Obviously, not everyone has grandchildren to look after, or children to look after them, and it’s somewhat idealistic to believe that co-generational living will be the solution to our aging population, especially with our American values of independence. But it should be encouraged, not the opposite.

In West Tisbury, voters recently rejected a proposal that would have been a boon for families looking to create an in-law apartment. The town’s affordable housing committee pitched a pilot program, with $250,000 in seed money, that would award small grants to a homeowner who wanted to build a unit. The idea is that one major hurdle facing a family looking to build is startup capital. 

But voters had some issues. There was confusion over some of the language and specifics of the program. Some of the opposition came in the question of who would be eligible: With building costs so high, small grants and startup money will only go so far. Would West Tisbury taxpayers just be subsidizing only a wealthy individual with the money to invest in their home? It’s a valid concern, but not one without a solution. There’s also a concern about wasting taxpayer money on more bureaucracy, as the program would likely need someone to administer the grants. That’s also a problem with solutions.

While it was rejected at this latest town meeting, we are encouraged that proponents aren’t giving up. We suggest that they work hand in hand with Island leaders to develop a program that is sound, and could have buy-in across the town.

But it could also be an issue of thinking too small. There is a lot of potential, not just for West Tisbury, but the Island. While it’s a dirty word on the Vineyard, the potential for a funding program would have a bigger impact on a regional scale. How many West Tisbury residents want to build an accessory dwelling unit, compared with the entire Island? With a broader pool, you’re more likely to find younger families. With certain parameters, the program could create more year-round apartments to live in. 

The Vineyard would hardly be alone in encouraging the development of ADUs. California and Portland are among governments that are having success providing housing through attached and small, detached apartments with a main house. San Diego has developed a program that incentivizes the creation of ADUs for low-income residents to rent; Portland has incentivized the creation of ADUs that support communal living for seniors.

The housing issues are vast on the Island, and the pilot program obviously won’t solve all our issues. For one, the apartments likely won’t bring down skyrocketing housing costs, as it’s not increasing the housing inventory. Nor will it help all seniors who want to live out their days on the Island. 

But there isn’t one silver bullet that has been identified so far, and it’s going to take a lot to make a dent. Accessory-dwelling units, at scale and supported by lifecare services at home, with healthy aging, could help a great deal without depending on institutional services like nursing homes.