The combination of aging people and suburban land-use patterns, in Chris Kennedy’s assessment, is a crisis in the making.
Seniors are faced with the choice between aging in place in unwalkable suburbs or moving into urban dwellings which all too often have not been properly retrofitted.
Kennedy, the founder of consulting company Age2Age, helped the City of Lancaster craft its Age-Friendly Action Plan. On Thursday, she emceed the 2023 Lancaster Age-Friendly Summit.
Held at the Holiday Inn Lancaster, its main focus was age-friendly housing. It was hosted by United Way of Lancaster County with support from lead organizations Lancaster Downtowners, the Lancaster Recreation Commission, Landis Communities and the city of Lancaster.
Age-Friendly housing options
As showcased at the 2023 Age-Friendly Lancaster Summit
- Accessory dwelling units (ADUs)
- Affordable housing
- Apartment living
- Home repair subsidies for aging in place (e.g., (Whole Home Repairs)
- Home sharing
- Integrated middle-market/affordable housing
- Intergenerational housing
- LGBTQ+ senior housing
- Luxury senior housing
- “Missing middle” housing
The morning consisted of breakout sessions, each of which presented a specific solution to the housing crisis as it relates to an aging population. In the afternoon, a panel presentation brought together representatives of four developers with recent or upcoming projects: HDC MidAtlantic, Garden Spot Communities, Landis Communities, and Willow Valley Communities.
Kennedy kicked things off with a brief history of postwar urban planning to explain how U.S. society reached this impasse. The 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, she said, laid the groundwork for suburban development.
The suburban model, in which residents depend on vehicles for access to resources, shifted new housing production towards single family homes. Retirement communities, whose popularity exploded in the 1960s, absorbed many seniors, especially those with wealth. Meanwhile, prewar and midcentury housing stock continued to deteriorate.
“Urban planning models have been focused on families up to this point,” Kennedy said. “But now we have a lot more older adults who are going to live a lot longer than they used to.”
Promoting housing diversity
Douglas Smith, chief planner for Lancaster, detailed aspects of the city’s draft Comprehensive Plan (scheduled for approval later this month) as they relate to age-friendly housing. He highlighted Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), sometimes referred to as granny suites. They can provide an aging family member with both independence and security; when rented commercially, they can help families or individuals defray their own housing costs.
As the comp plan describes them, they “create flexible and efficient housing by using existing building stock and/or lots with an existing primary structure.”
Simply allowing ADUs doesn’t mean that people will build them, Smith told One United Lancaster.
“Other challenges like utility access to the building, adequate transportation access, and stormwater management often stand in the way,” he said. “There is also the matter of financing, which is difficult for small projects like ADUs because they are not appealing to lending agencies.”
David Rouse, an urban planner and landscape architect, gave a breakout session on Missing Middle Housing. The term describes a kind of housing stock that has fallen off dramatically since World War II: Row homes, duplexes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density buildings. Lancaster City, much of which was built before WWII, has many such dwellings.
“We love rowhouses!” said Elizabeth Soto, a board member of SACA, the Spanish American Civic Association. She emphasized the importance of using small, local companies for both renovations and development of new housing.
Ben Lesher, the president of Parcel B Development Co., is the developer behind Stadium Row and The Yards. He said developers have little choice but to propose large projects with many units in order to make the numbers work and secure loans from banks.
A variety of comments from the audience spoke to the day’s concerns. How can one safely age in place when living in the upper floor of a duplex? What about cohousing for the elderly? How do we keep “flippers” from buying up rowhouses and fostering gentrification?
Lancaster and the Age-Friendly initiative
Since December 2018, Lancaster has been part of the World Health Organization’s global network of Age-Friendly communities. It is one of nine in Pennsylvania, according to AARP.
Chris Kennedy founder of Age2Age Consulting, described the designation as aspirational. Unlike other designations, such as Bicycle-Friendly City, it does not come with concrete requirements, instead committing cities to a five-year cycle of ongoing improvement to increase livability for all ages, from the youngest to the oldest.
Lancaster adopted its Age-Friendly Action Plan in December 2021 and is now in the “Implementation” part of that five-year cycle.
On Oct. 24, City Council is scheduled to vote on adopting Lancaster’s new comprehensive plan. That plan will in turn engender new zoning maps and laws.
The plan’s embrace of age-friendly policies is groundbreaking and will make Lancaster a role model for smaller cities, Kennedy said.
Whole Home Repairs
In a breakout session, Rebeca Santos and Noemi Martinze, from Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority covered the Whole Home Repairs program.
Funded by $3.9 million in state American Rescue Plan Act money, Whole Home Repairs can help seniors safely age in place, they said. Potential repairs and renovations include not only HVAC systems, roofs and plumbing but also accessibility modifications like lifting devices, ramps, grab bars and handrails. HUD income guidelines are used to determine eligibility.
The authority has received 305 applications since January. More than 10 projects have been completed, with another two dozen currently under construction.
In September, the authority began placing applicants on a waiting list because, as Santos explained, “We need more contractors.”
The authority has other funding sources for home repairs, although some of it requires projects to be bid out, which takes time. Fixing code violations, which can otherwise lead to condemnation or costly fines, qualifies for Whole Home Repairs; Santos said the authority works closely with enforcement officers to ensure no one who qualifies for the program is unnecessarily evicted from a home.
Other repairs fall outside the program’s guidelines. They may involve outdated technology, like gravity furnaces, or serious structural flaws with prohibitively high costs. Other funding can be used in these instances. Sometimes loans are involved and require liens to be placed on the property, Santos and Martinze said.
(Editor’s Note: The list of event sponsors was updated on Oct. 16.)