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Accessory Apartments: Keeping Our Special Needs Children and Elderly Close

Along with the graying of America, our society is grappling with a dramatic surge of young adults impacted by autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities who are aging out of school and into the vastly less supported real world. We need to think creatively about how to provide alternative housing options for them.

There are approximately 18,000 children with autism in Massachusetts alone aged 3 to 21 who will need homes after aging out of the school system. Of this group, only about 15 percent obtain housing from the state at age 22 (tending to be the neediest cases). For the rest, no housing is provided. Yet about 80 to 90 percent of this population does not work. Along with this tsunami, the percentage of seniors is growing fast, and many will need housing support and care.

Government cannot afford to take care of all these people. Every effort must be taken not only to expand programs and housing to address their needs, but also to help families care for their loved ones on their own. For this reason, Massachusetts towns should allow accessory apartments for our elderly and disabled residents.

Accessory apartments, also known as “in-law apartments,” can both help our elderly age in place and also provide affordable housing for our family members with developmental disabilities. A potential added benefit could be the reduction of tear-downs. Although efforts are being made to make accessory apartments available to everyone by changing zoning laws town by town, the units should be a “by right use” for anyone state-wide to live in who is 65 or older, or deemed disabled by the Social Security Administration.

For our seniors. Accessory apartments could help seniors, many of whom have lived in their towns for decades, age in place. Accessory apartments could provide seniors with affordable places to live, within their own communities and near the people they love. For example, seniors could move into an accessory apartment and have their grown children live in the main house, close by to help if needed.

For our intellectually and developmentally disabled. An accessory apartment could offer an affordable, sustainable, long-term solution for our disabled children. Caregiving is often the biggest expense, and the apartment would allow the family to help care for the disabled individual. Families may also be able to use funding from MassHealth to pay a live-in caregiver to assist their children. In addition, the rent can be affordable if a Section 8 federal housing voucher is obtained.

For our towns. McMansions are affecting both the charm and the warmth of our towns. Ninety-five tear-down permits were issued in Wellesley in 2015 alone, and the situation is similar in many other towns. Seniors, whose homes may have become too big for them, do not have to be forced out and sell to a developer if they can live in an accessory apartment, attached to the family home.

The current law. Accessory apartments are not permitted for any reason in some Massachusetts towns, and others only allow them by special permit. Instead, towns should adopt zoning bylaws that would permit accessory apartments for elderly or disabled relatives of the homeowner as a “by right use.”

(In addition to the zoning change, efforts are underway to make building the accessory apartments affordable. Bill S. 2202 (formerly S. 708), currently under consideration at the State House, would allow the homeowner to take out a low-cost loan from the state to create an accessory apartment of up to two bedrooms, provided that a person with a disability or a senior citizen resides in the new unit. The bill permits family members and other property owners to obtain a low-cost loan of the lesser of $50,000 or half of the construction costs in the form of a fixed loan.)

Accessory apartments are not the solution for everyone — we need all sorts of new options to address this growing population – but they could help. Having multiple generations and those with developmental disabilities woven into our communities is a bonus for everyone, and keeping them close to home means they can stay near family and their community.

To learn more about housing options for the disabled in Massachusetts, contact Karen Mariscal.

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