CHATHAM — When it comes to senior citizens' housing needs, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. That was the message the planning board heard from elder advocates last week.
In a rare joint meeting with the council on aging board of directors last Tuesday, the planning board posed a series of questions designed to help them consider zoning changes that would encourage the development of senior-friendly housing. Chairman Peter Cocolis said when the Friends of the Council on Aging carried out its recent community needs assessment, it became clear that the planning board needed a better understanding of senior housing needs as part of its planning of the town's village centers. It makes sense to understand those needs “before we drew lines around what a village center would be,” Cocolis said.
Council on Aging Chairman Carole DeChristopher said that those who responded to the needs assessment survey made it clear that they want to stay in town, like most other people in Chatham.
“Housing is not a senior problem. Housing is a community problem,” she said. Sixty-two percent of households in town have a member who's at least 60 years of age. “At least two-thirds of the people who responded to this survey had lived in Chatham for at least 15 years, and wanted to continue to do so,” DeChristopher said.
Asked what kind of housing seniors need, DeChristopher didn't hesitate.
“Affordable,” she said.
Council on Aging Director Mandi Speakman said there are some seniors who survive on $12,000 or $13,000 a year and live in a federally designated poverty zone. “The council on aging services those people and hooks them up with benefit programs,” she said. But there are also elders in Chatham who simply ran out of money.
“They are people who didn't expect to live this long. They didn't plan for their retirement, they didn't plan for their spouse to predecease them, and their spouse was the one who made all the financial decisions,” she said.
Lastly, Chatham has seniors who have financial means “who would dearly love to downsize, or need assistance of some sort, and a co-living situation would be ideal for them. But there aren't many options,” Speakman said.
A planning board member said she's intrigued by the house sharing option, with several seniors living together and sharing a kitchen and common spaces.
“It reminded me a lot of the Golden Girls,” she said.
But others stressed the benefits of intergenerational house-sharing. Seniors who find themselves in a house that's too large may also find that they need help running errands, mowing the lawn or doing other chores, while young working residents might be happy to take on the chores in exchange for affordable living space.
Cocolis said his experience with his parents showed that a senior's housing needs can change suddenly with changes in health. They eventually found a place where they could transition from independent living to skilled nursing over time, “and they didn't have to move too far from where they were,” he said.
Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer said the town has long had provisions for people to create accessory apartments – often called “in-law apartments” – but the idea hasn't generated many more housing units.
“Frankly, it hasn't been used much,” she said. The town also allows apartments over certain retail spaces.
Speakman said that the best senior housing locations are near public transit lines, health care providers and retailers.
“Where do all those things exist? A lot of it is right along Route 28,” she said. A member of the COA board agreed.
“We don't want to stick this place out in the boonies,” he said.
Ruffer said it's important to think beyond the creation of a senior housing complex on a tract of open space someplace.
“Chatham is a developed-out community. The real opportunities here are redevelopment,” she said.
While traditional zoning limits the density of housing units, it also prohibits the kind of neighborhoods that suit seniors well, resident Florence Seldin said.
“You couldn't build Riverbay today,” she said. That development has many homes on small lots, “and it's a very livable community,” she said.
The planning board will continue collecting ideas about senior housing before developing those ideas into proposals that can be presented to citizens, Cocolis said. Those ideas will eventually be crafted into bylaws for town meeting to consider.
DeChristopher thanked the planning board for hosting the discussion.
“We need to keep the communication open so that we can support initiatives that are going to be good for the entire community,” not just for seniors, she said.