Planning Magazine

Housing Diversity Encourages Age-Friendly, Accessible Communities

AARP’s Rodney Harrell talks about aging in place, ADUs, and how zoning reform can help planners provide housing that meets community needs.

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ADUs, like coach houses and in-law units, are gaining popularity as a way to increase and diversify housing supply. Photo by Celeste Noche.

A lack of housing diversity forces many people to live in homes that don't meet their needs. Often, residents experiencing disabilities and older adults who wish to "age in place" are stuck in houses that aren't accessible; homeowners are unable to use their property for purposes like accessory dwelling units (ADU); young families who want to move into neighborhoods closer to school, work, or other family members are left without affordable options.

"In the average neighborhood, eight out of 10 homes are zoned for single-family-only housing. That means that we have very few other options for folks, and it really limits people's ability to find the right option that matches their needs," says Rodney Harrell, PhD, vice president of Family, Home and Community at AARP's Public Policy Institute.

AARP has long partnered with APA to provide planners with the resources they need to expand housing type and availability in our communities. One of the most useful tools in a planners' housing toolbox? Zoning reform.

"In many communities, over time, some of the zoning that's been put into place has been done just to keep certain people out of communities," says Harrell. "The same way that planning and zoning has been used in the past to keep communities apart and to keep people out, we can use those same tools to help bring communities together and bring people together."

Now, AARP and APA have come together to develop another new tool for planners. The report, Expanding ADU Development and Occupancy: Solutions for Removing Local Barriers to ADU Construction, released in May, is aimed at helping community leaders, planners, and housing practitioners and advocates take concrete steps to overcome barriers to expanding local supply and legal occupancy of ADUs.

Planning sat down with Harrell to talk more about the regulatory barriers that are limiting housing options, the role of zoning reform in overcoming those barriers, and how planners can help their communities better understand the potential benefits of housing diversity — including ADUs — in their neighborhoods. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DONEGAN: Housing has become a top priority for AARP. Why is that?

HARRELL: Today, we're driven by the fact that nearly four out of five of those 50 and older want to stay in their homes and communities. But we know that roughly one percent of homes have all the features that people need when they're aging. And so, simply put, we need more housing options to help people have a better chance of getting the housing that meets their needs.

Simply put, we need more housing options to help people have a better chance of getting the housing that meets their needs.

DONEGAN: What are some of the regulatory barriers in place that are keeping us from being able to create more housing diversity?

HARRELL: What often occurs to me is that communities are trying to preserve what they have. So they'll do things like ban other forms of housing other than single-family. And they're doing that to try to protect some core of the community. And often, that actually has a reverse effect of limiting the choices of the people in that community, and it can work against them. Having more options, having the ability to be in a house of a different type or size in the various locations around the community, can really benefit folks.

It's challenging. Zoning reform and regulations are a very challenging thing for planners to understand in the first place, but much more for public officials and local residents.

DONEGAN: NIMBY backlash and local resistance to land-use and housing policy changes create significant barriers to zoning reform in some communities. How do you recommend planners respond to this resistance in a way that will bring more people along?

HARRELL: One of the biggest things I think we can do is to help people understand the types of changes that will benefit them, what those pros and cons are. So creating, let's say, an accessory dwelling unit ordinance in your town might allow you to build a unit in the backyard for your mother who might need care or house a caregiver if you need care. Or it can be another option for you if you can't get up the stairs or it can act as an income-generating source for you. All those things could happen by allowing this change. You need to understand that in the future, I might benefit from this.

It's your job as a planner to bring that to the conversation for folks. You can bring in our AARP Livability Index to say, "Here's what our community is missing and why maybe we should do some of the things that other communities are doing." You can look at our videos and webinars and model acts that we have on our website and bring those with you. Because I think there's power in it, not just coming from you as an individual planner or the planning department of our town, but AARP is saying this. "This is what the country is doing. This is what our competitors are doing. This is what our neighbors are doing. This is what the communities that we want to be like are doing."

Rodney Harrell describes the ability to create more housing in the places people want to live in as "magic."

And similarly, we see mayors and other civic leaders saying: "That community across the region, they've got a policy that allows ADUs, and they're doing better because of it. Maybe we should do that." Providing examples is one way to help people understand that it might not be as scary as you think to put some of these options into place.

DONEGAN: As a former planner, you understand the unique perspectives and insights planners bring to housing and land-use decisions. Why is it critical that a diverse group of stakeholders, including planners, elected officials, and advocates, join together to find local solutions?

HARRELL: A key part of my philosophy on understanding and creating change in this space is that it's an all-hands-on-deck kind of an issue. It's not enough for planners to be educated and to have the tools. We need individuals in the community to be educated about the kinds of options that we're talking about and how it may benefit them. We need local officials to be educated about the policies. We need the private sector educated about these options and how they might serve their customers better now and into the future.

I think planners are in a unique position to have a broad, long-term view and to be able to bring in the partners and parties that need to be involved to make sure we make a communitywide decision. In every community, that lineup is going to be different. But the idea is that you need to bring together and hear from the key stakeholders so that we can craft the policies for this particular community that benefit them the most. It also isn't a one-and-done kind of a thing. We might have to take multiple bites at the apple to get the policies in place that we need.

DONEGAN: Do you have any personal stories from folks you have talked to that help explain why having housing choice matters?

HARRELL: I remember talking to an older woman outside of Hoover, Alabama. She was really starting to struggle a little bit, but she was determined to stay in the place where she was. She had a house with a huge amount of stairs, and for her, it was so important to stay in her community that she was just going to remain in that house. I asked her what might happen when she was not able to do the stairs anymore. She said, "Well, I'll just figure it out when that happens."

I think about her a lot. She felt that hers was the only home that would allow her to stay in that community. If she didn't stay, she wouldn't be able to be around her friends, around her church, around her neighbors, and she was really sticking to that housing option.

There are millions of people in communities with really limited choices. That often means that we compromise things that we really shouldn't have to compromise.

I wonder what stories like hers would be like if there were a range of options. Maybe there was a one-story place that may have some universal design features near the town center that she could have moved into. And would she have been happier and healthier, safer there? I don't know. But I do know that there are millions of people like her in communities with really limited choices. That often means that we compromise things that we really shouldn't have to compromise. I think about people like her all the time.

DONEGAN: How can APA and AARP work together in that effort to build political will, overcome resistance, and advance key reforms?

HARRELL: What AARP can do, what APA can do, what others can do, is start by helping people understand how housing options can benefit them and their families into the future. Then, we can work on building the legislative framework to do it, helping reduce some of the other barriers, as well.

I think one of the biggest things that we can do is provide resources to planners. Specifically, we have a model act on accessory dwelling units, we have a new model act on missing middle housing, And the policy guides that APA puts out — all these are resources that planners have and they can take with them to help either create the legislation or make the case for the kind of changes that people need.

In 2015 we rolled out our Livability index and that was what I call the "planner's best friend." It is a tool that talks about many of the principles that AARP cares about and measures communities on all of those indicators. We added accessory dwelling unit state policies to show how that is providing more options for folks. These tools are shaped to educate the general public, but planners can use them to really help people understand what's happening in their communities and what they need.

We're going to continue to do that, and I'm hopeful that APA will do that as well. We'll help the planners do what they need to do to make their communities better for all.

Brenna Donegan is APA’s senior communications associate.