How can seniors downsize and stay in the neighborhood?

“I’ve started to look at a senior housing complex,” a beloved neighbor tells you. “I simply cannot take care of my big house and yard anymore.”

How can you reply to this heartbreaking news? With so few options, most seniors have to move away from the neighborhood they know and from the neighbors and businesses that know them.

There’s no single answer to this problem, but at a community meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5, the St. Anthony Park Land Use Efficiency (LUE) action group will ask residents to decide whether the neighborhood is ready to welcome “granny flats” or “alley houses” (a.k.a. accessory dwelling units or ADUs) to the neighborhood as a partial answer.

These small units, constructed as separate backyard structures or as attached units on the main residence, can be highly energy efficient, easy to maintain and accessible. They can house seniors, family members or others. They can provide rental income or allow a property owner to downsize and rent out the main house. The ADU also can house a caretaker for the residents of the main home.

“I know many people in the neighborhood interested in aging in place but looking to be done with yard chores and upkeep of larger homes,” said Ellen Watters. “Some of the ideas being discussed, like ‘alley houses,’ ‘granny flats’ and even communal housing are very intriguing and seem like they are worth exploring for our neighborhood.”

In the May 2003 profile of St. Anthony Park, Macalester College professor David Lanegran reported that the top housing-related issues for current residents were lack of affordable housing options for families, lack of affordable housing options for seniors and the presence of too many run-down properties. Similarly, businesses were concerned about the lack of affordable housing options.

In response to similar concerns elsewhere, communities are changing their zoning codes to allow ADUs. Their experiences can inform our decision making, said Philip Broussard, chair of the LUE group.

“Our group formed in February and is one facet of the Community Council’s effort to reduce the neighborhood’s carbon footprint, improve the local economy and develop stronger neighborhood connections,” Broussard said. “We feel our local architects can maintain and improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood by designing small, affordable homes that fit in the back yard of single-family lots.”

In August and September, the LUE conducted listening sessions with 36 residents of north and south St. Anthony Park. Those one-on-one sessions revealed that nearly all supported the idea of allowing ADUs and duplexes. They said some of the potential benefits include longer-term property ownership as family needs change, easier accommodation of adult children who need or want to live at home again, and more beautiful and secure alleys.

Several said they wanted to live in a multigenerational neighborhood and would welcome a chance for seniors to “age in place” and remain part of their extended families.

There was unanimous agreement to require owner occupancy of either the main house or the ADU, to help address issues of property maintenance and nuisance control. Other potential problems include parking and building appearance, height and screening. The same benefits and issues relate to conversion of a single-family home to a duplex, so the LUE action group is exploring ways to integrate the concepts of ADUs and duplexes that would fit the neighborhood.

“We have a good mix of options already,” said one person. “There are affordable condos, apartments and other rentals.”

But others disagree. Ben Lockhart said he has begun looking for a smaller home but would rather stay on his property. “I am the sole resident of my house, which is far larger than I need or wish to care for. If I could live in an alley house, I could keep some of the back yard to garden and let one of my children and their family move into our community. And I could still walk to work!”

There is little undeveloped land available in St. Anthony Park for construction of smaller, accessible and more easily affordable rental units suitable for small families, young workers, disabled people and seniors.

St. Paul Planning and Zoning is considering a draft ordinance to allow ADUs along the Central Corridor. Among other requirements, the current draft states that the property must be owner occupied and be at least 5,000 square feet in area, that only one ADU be permitted and that only two other accessory units (such as garages and sheds) be allowed on the same zoned lot. The dwelling units may be separate from or attached to the main house or built over a garage. This draft ordinance arose from the goal in PED’s current Housing Action Plan to study ADU zoning for sub-geographic areas of the city. The community meeting on Nov. 5 will be held in the auditorium of Luther Seminary’s Northwestern Hall, 1501 Fulham St. Speakers will describe how other communities have successfully integrated ADUs into existing single-family neighborhoods. The draft zoning ordinance will be presented by staff from St. Paul Planning and Zoning. Residents will have an opportunity to share their views and to vote on whether to support the draft ordinance or a modified version for St. Anthony Park.

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