As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. But American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it.
“There’s been so much emphasis on independence and on privacy that we really designed community right out of our lives without knowing it,” said Katie McCamant, an architect and cohousing development consultant.
Pew Research Centerhas noted that more and more Americans are opting to live together. Compared to just 12% in 1980, the trend has been on a strong upward swing, with 20%, or 64 million Americans, living with two or more adult generations in a single household. An analysis of internal migration in the U.S. by the Federal Reserve Board’s Divisions of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs found that domestic migration reached an “inflection point” in 1980, and has been in decline ever since.
For families that can afford it, major homebuilders are now offering “multigenerational” floor plans that make space for three or more generations. Lennar, one of the largest homebuilders in the United States, launched a suite of floorplans that the company branded Next Gen in 2011. It describes its designs with a tagline: “Two homes. Under one roof.”
Typical features include separate entrances and garages that let parents come and go as they please. These “in-law” units often have their own kitchenette and living spaces, too. The company touts the financial benefits of a multigen home: There’s just one mortgage, you’ll spend less on gas and waste less time commuting; you’ll also spend less on childcare, the company claims.
“Getting a babysitter means getting quality time with the grandparents.”
There are drawbacks to aging in a single-family suburban development, which tend to neglect walkability–an important factor for seniors who want to be mobile and engaged in their communities.
But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children.
Architect Lisa Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, wrote of her firsthand experience with multigenerational life in a book, Hive, a practical how-to for families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together.
Cini dealt with the design problem of making her parents and grandmother feel welcome in their living room (make it more like a frat house, enough seating for everyone, then more). She designed a private entrance for her 94-year-old grandmother’s suite–formerly the home’s garage–and decided to keep a series of stairs leading to the apartment (stairs shouldn’t be avoided, no matter your age; they’re exercise).
Something as simple as storage can be emotional for grandparents who are moving into their adult children’s homes; giving them space to display memories of their lives is crucial. Looking back, Cini has a few things she would do differently: She wishes she would have added heated flooring to her grandma’s bathroom and a light under every stair. Even though she and her husband could control their lights from their phones, her dad missed the light switch.
“It’s still about choice. I think we forget that that should be an option,” she says.
A Trial Run
Cini’s long-term vision is to open rental properties in major cities, where families interested in multigenerational homes can experience one in real life. She’s built a kind of Airbnb for aging, a model designed to let families try out living together in multigenerational layouts.
“A whole family can stay there and kind of actually see: ‘Can we do this? Is this gonna work?’” she says. “What kind of little tweaks can we make before they just get into it?”
Aging in Place
According to research by the AARP, almost 90% of seniors want to remain in their own homes as they age, also known as aging in place. For a multitude of reasons, living with adult children isn’t always an option. Caregivers are increasingly hard to come by, and not all homes are designed for aging bodies.
There are other, subtle problems that aging in place can create, as the architect Katie McCamant points out. “What I hear a lot is when people first retire, they often say, ‘I’ve never been busier.’ You find out that my connection to all these things I’m so busy with is my car. And if I can’t drive, I’m totally cut off.”
McCamant has helped groups of Americans around the country build their own “cohousing,” a term for a group of private homes that share community spaces and resources.
“When people don’t connect in their neighborhood, it really is the beginning of a much larger isolation from everything,” she said.
Cohousing takes many forms: It can be a group of young families who want to share the cost of childcare and housework by pooling their resources. For seniors–who are increasingly baby boomers who came of age during the countercultural revolution–cohousing offers an alternative to corporate senior-living complexes, along with the freedom to determine the design, values, and vibe of a collective senior community.
In 2015, McCamant founded CoHousing Solutions, to work with groups interested in building their own cohousing developments. That includes projects like PDX Commons, a 27-unit housing complex that was recently completed in downtown Portland, Oregon. Oriented around a shared courtyard, homeowners share other amenities like a great room, roof deck, and guest suites for visiting family or caregivers. They also share a mission statement that includes respect, cooperation, and nurturing. While one person age 55 or older must live in 80% of the Commons’ homes, according to fair housing regulations, children and adults are welcome to live in any of the units along with their senior-aged owners.
While there are over 170 cohousing communities in the U.S. today, there are major hurdles associated with building one.
Part of McCamant group’s mission is to share best practices for building cohousing with clients, developers, and architects. “If we’re going to move it forward, we need to start from the best practices and get better–not reinvent the wheel,” she says.
Her goal is to see the next 500 cohousing projects built within the U.S., which means teaching other people. She runs a yearly training program called500Communities, aimed at “training the next generation of cohousing professionals,” from topics like construction management to cash flow. This year’s participants include commercial real estate experts, architects, economists, housing advocates for seniors and neurodiverse populations, and a diverse array of other professional backgrounds. The value proposition behind cohousing, it seems, is attractive to more than just the clients.
Cohousing isn’t the only alternative to conventional senior living centers emerging in the U.S. Other models aimed at better connecting seniors with younger generations are slowly starting to pop up after finding success in Europe. One is known as “site-sharing,” or situating senior housing in cooperation with a daycare or school. Another alternative is what Donna Butts, executive director of the policy group Generations United, calls “intergenerational home-sharing.” In this case, college-aged people can rent rooms from seniors at reduced prices, in exchange for help around the house and engagement–from having dinner to walking the dog.
“We really think that there’s a policy piece in the future with that that will tie student debt reduction with supports for aging in place, but it’s not there yet,” Butts says. Cities like Boston are already piloting the idea, offering affordable housing to grad students in exchange for help with chores.
The way we choose to house ourselves reflects the things we value and the ideas we see as progressive. For the last century or so, those values have been independence, privacy, and individuality. Now, Americans face a twin challenge of the increasing expense of homeownership and retirement and the uncertainty of an economy and climate in flux. A recent study of hundreds of California cities and their carbon footprints concluded that housing–and specifically, housing that makes cities more dense, infilling around existing suburbs and transit stops–can “reduce greenhouse gas pollution more effectively than any other option.”
American cities and suburbs will need to undergo a radical change in response to climate change, shifting away from single-family homes and toward denser housing typologies, away from personal vehicles and toward public transit, walkability, and shared cars, away from independence and towards resource sharing. Ironically, we stand to benefit from those changes as we age.
What type of life do we want to age into? What does the right amount of togetherness look like? A mixture of economic, demographic, and environmental forces are now emerging to force the answer–and over the next few decades, we’ll find out which of these nascent ways of living wins out.