Solution to US debt woes isn't economic. It's social.
Economic problems like the housing debacle, Social Security and Medicare shortfalls have a social solution: stronger extended families.
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America’s elderly population is now growing at a moderate rate. But soon into this century, the rate will accelerate. According to census projections, the elderly population will double between now and the year 2050, to close to 79 million. By then, as many as 1 in 5 Americans could be elderly.Skip to next paragraph
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In order to adjust the housing stock of the country to reflect the baby boomers’ retirement and the associated growth in multigenerational living arrangements, changes will be required in long-existing and mostly local housing and building codes and associated ordinances. The main battle line in this political fight is over accessory apartments, popularly called “granny flats.” Built adjacent to larger houses, they can provide living spaces for adult children or grandparents. They offer both proximity and privacy. Public debate and political battles are being fought, won, and lost around the country over making changes in codes that not only allow for, but actually promote, the construction of accessory apartments in existing neighborhoods and in new developments.
Accessory apartments produce two kinds of complaints. First, physical impacts, such as increased parking and traffic and architectural changes in buildings, are often seen as disruptive to neighborhoods. The second sort relates to social and cultural issues. That is, accessory apartments deviate from the traditional ways of looking at housing, family, and the neighborhood. It stands for a change in the way the single-family house is used, a departure from the conventional meanings connected to residential zoning categories.
While builders and architects do complain about zoning constraints and such, their own practices are often obstacles to housing appropriate for the new century. They talk more about features that will sell to consumers, but won’t really serve them. For example, consider a ritzy Newport Beach, Calif., neighborhood where folks have been sold $2 million homes with granny flats at the tops of stairs! How's granny going to navigate those steep steps?
What America must do
Fast-rising life expectancies, the growing costs of elder care, the increasing need for child care, the frustrating lack of affordable housing, and the new disconnectedness – all are producing unfamiliar challenges for families all around America. Fortunately, our aforementioned 20th century dalliance with nuclear families and white-picket-fence suburbia is fast winding down. The “social avalanche” of elderly baby boomers will force Americans back to the familiar family form of multigenerational households.
America must spur the comeback of accessory apartments and the flexibility of mixed neighborhoods with respect to size, value, and use. Now that the housing market has crashed, there’s some time to reflect on the future and to design communities and homes that will accommodate a fast-graying America in innovative ways.
– John L. Graham, professor emeritus of marketing and international business at the University of California at Irvine, is coauthor (with Sharon Graham Niederhaus) of “Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living.”