Granny pods. Elder cottages. ECHO housing. No matter what you call them, there is no question: accessory dwelling units (“ADUs” for short) are a booming trend for affordable senior living (as well as a reliable source of passive income) in the Hudson Valley. These spaces traditionally function as a separate living space on an existing residence. They can be located within a separate building (such as a garage) or in a space within the principal dwelling itself (such as an apartment above the garage or a furnished basement). This type of housing offers a cost-effective alternative to close-knit families who do not want to send their aging relatives to expensive nursing homes or senior centers, especially in light of COVID-19’s devastating impact on those facilities in the past seven months. On the flip side, renting out an ADU may also allow a senior citizen to generate additional monthly income from his or her existing residential property. In fact, a senior citizen could even plan to eventually stop renting the ADU and downsize into it themselves, while allowing family members to move into the principal dwelling for household support. As you can see, ADUs offer multifaceted options to help senior citizens successfully navigate the increased financial burdens of retirement, as well as provide diverse housing alternatives to the traditional senior living experience.
However, are ADUs legal in your community? If you are considering adding one to your property or finding one to downsize into, the following are things you should consider first:
- Check local zoning code regulations:
While the state allows and even encourages this type of non-traditional housing, many municipalities prohibit ADUs. Even if they are allowed, you must ensure that the ADU will meet zoning code requirements, including size, design, location, zoning district, and occupancy restrictions. Many communities require the property owner to live in the principal dwelling unit. Many others also require a separate entrance and kitchen and bathroom facilities. Some municipalities, regardless of how heavily they regulate ADUs, will even seek to incentivize diversification of their municipal housing market and consequently will work with you if you are looking to construct one on your property.
Regardless of the municipality’s specific regulations, it is likely that if an ADU is permitted, the ADU will still require a permit and/or approval from the municipality. This is where an experienced land use and municipal attorney can help demystify the municipality’s code and even help you obtain any approvals and/or permits you may need. You do not want to spend time, money, and effort constructing an attractive ADU on your property (or finding the perfect one to move into), only to find weeks or months later that your ADU violates the municipal zoning code.
- Ensure design elements will mesh with senior living:
Whether you are planning to construct your own ADU or are in the market to rent your own, you will want to ensure that all design elements take into consideration the myriad challenges of senior living. Thoughtful touches such as wheelchair accessible floorplans and doorways and senior-friendly lighting, kitchen appliances, cabinets, and bathroom features and fixtures will go a long way to making an ADU more desirable in the long term. There is a large market for “elder-friendly” interior design that will add an attractive selling point to prospective renters if you construct your own ADU, or enhance your experience as a renter if you know what elements to look for.
- Guarantee an adequate amount of privacy:
As with any rental property, you will want to ensure that there is adequate privacy between the ADU and main dwelling. For example, you will want to consider the distances and accessibility between the two buildings (i.e., is there a separate entrance?), the adequacy of the drapery and landscaping, etc. Successfully aging in place requires careful consideration of these items to allow both the property owner and the ADU renter the ability to feel independent from one another, but yet close enough in proximity to allow for on-site support if necessary.
- Future considerations:
When executed properly, ADUs can add significant value to a home in a community wherein diverse housing is appreciated and valued. Conversely, if you are looking to rent an ADU, you will want to look for one that allows for a range of independence, to allow you to age in place from when you move in until years to come, in case you become less mobile or independent as you navigate retirement.
As you can see, with the right amount of early research into the municipality’s requirements and senior-friendly design elements (and hopefully a seasoned land use/municipal attorney’s advice in your tool belt), you will be able to figure out how to make ADUs work for you.
This is not intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney for advice regarding your specific situation.