The nation's largest untapped housing resource

Grass-roots change is not often associated with the grass roots of suburbia. Consider, however, the growth of an estimated 15,000 illegal apartments in the single-family homes of suburban Long Island. Look at the increase in similar apartments in places like Westport, Conn., Alexandria, Va., and other suburbs, reported in news articles with titles like "The Hidden Rental Market" and "Town Officials Worry About Illegal Apartments." These articles may be indicators of growing pressures for change in the zoning of suburban single-family neighborhoods, pressures that have gone relatively unnoticed because of the political risk of proposing changes in zoning.

What are the pressures now affecting single-family zoning? For years it has been designed to produce more and more comfortable houses for raising families. Today, in contrast, we need small homes both for newly created young households and for newly shrunken "empty nester" households. The economy tends to make the young households more childless and career oriented, and it tends to make the empty nesters less affluent and less able to support the heat, maintenance, and taxes on their large family homes.

In this context, it makes sense for an older homeowner to invest the $10,000 it takes to convert a walk-out basement "rec-room" or unused upstairs into an efficiency apartment for a young couple.

The potential benefits for everybody are impressive:

* Inexpensive small apartments for both young and old households seeking rental housing;

* Rental income for older homeowners;

* Security for older homeowners from fear of criminal intrusion and personal accidents when alone;

* Incidental personal services for older homeowners provided inexpensively in return for rent reduction by tenants who have no overhead or travel costs;

* Companionship;

* A way for older homeowners to stay in comfortable independence in homes they would otherwise need to leave.

But "accessory apartments," "mother-in-law flats," and "single-family conversions," as they are called in various parts of the country, are rarely legal.

Single-family zoning almost universally prohibits accessory apartments except for relatives. There is hope, however. There are a few far-sighted local governments like Portland, Ore., with its new "Add-a-Rental" zoning. And there are places like Babylon, Long Island, which found itself with so many illegal accessory apartments it had to make its zoning bow to reality. In both cases accessory apartments are legal only for owner occupiers, and changes to the appearance of the home are effectively prohibited.

It is important to emphasize that legalizing accessory apartments would enable many older homeowners to stay in their homes when economic pressures and/or declining physical abilities might otherwise force them to move. Statistics clearly indicate that they do not want to move, even when their homes are too big for them. Leo Baldwin, housing coordinator for the American Association of Retired Persons, points out that, as people retire from active roles in the community, their long-term homes often become relatively more important to them, both because they spend more time there and because their homes hold innumerable associations with the achievement and status in life that support their sense of who they are.

Who would be the best constituency to raise the issue of zoning changes that would benefit older homeowners? The answer seems to be older homeowners. Few people are likely to accuse them of changing zoning in order to run down neighborhoods in which they have lived for years. They would be acting out of more than legitimate self-interest.

In addition, older homeowners, through changing zoning regulations, would be turning the unused space in their homes into the nation's largest untapped housing resource. It would be a resource they would control and one they could release as they saw fit for their own benefit and the community's.

It may go even deeper than that. Changing zoning to permit accessory apartments will increase the bargaining power of the elderly homeowner in our society. As the basic work on filial responsibility by Alvin Schorr points out, "bargaining power is vital to the aging person." With bargaining power comes increased dignity.

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