BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The tiny house movement could be coming to Montclair, and seniors are hoping it would help them age in place.
Since 1980, a Montclair law has allowed the Planning Board to grant a conditional use for an addition of separate living quarters within a single-family home or accessory building to house an older family member.
The law is highly restrictive, however. Now, the Montclair Senior Housing Action Group, which has been focusing on the elderly who wish to age in place, is proposing that the current law be relaxed to allow more Montclairians to build and rent out accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
Township planner Janice Talley said she is working with the seniors on the renewed interest in ADUs.
Accessory dwelling units — termed by some as the tiny house movement — have been growing in popularity in the U.S. as a way to house a family across generations, while providing independence and privacy, and helping with housing costs.
With Montclair’s senior population on the rise — as are Montclair’s taxes and rents — advocates for the elderly are looking for ways for seniors to remain in the community, and at ADUs as one alternative.
By definition, an ADU is a self-contained residential dwelling unit with kitchen facilities, a bathroom, sleeping quarters and a separate entrance, created within an existing single-family residence or through the conversion of an existing accessory structure on the premises such as a garage, or by an addition to a residence or accessory structure.
RESTRICTIVE SINCE 1980
Montclair’s current law applies only to family members, mostly parents, who are seniors or have a health condition. No rent or fees can be collected by the owner.
The owners enter into a written agreement with the township that is renewed annually. They agree that the use will end if the property is sold or the parent no longer occupies the space, and that the kitchen will be torn out at the end of the agreement.
Only three families have taken advantage of the law so far.
Now, the Montclair Senior Housing Action Group is asking that the law be expanded beyond family members, and that the addition can become a permanent structure as an option either for seniors to live there or for senior homeowners to rent them out.
After looking at the current law, the group undertook a walking survey of the township this summer and identified over 50 properties across all four wards that either look as if they had accessory units already, or had two-story garages that could be converted.
“We would like to see the local accessory dwelling unit law be changed so that homeowners have a creative solution to develop their property to reflect the need for more affordable housing options. Our research indicates that this should increase property values without putting undue strain on town infrastructure,” said Housing Action Group co-Chair Frank Millspaugh.
More towns began investigating ADUs in the 1990s through urban design movements, such as Smart Growth and New Urbanism, to improve quality of life by creating inclusive communities that provide a wide range of housing choices, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
WHY TINY HOUSES?
Proponents say the benefits of ADUs include increasing a community’s housing supply through lower construction costs, offering an affordable housing option for many low- and moderate-income residents and providing extra income that can ease the cost of living.
ADUs can be designed to blend in with the surrounding architecture, thereby preserving community character, and require little infrastructure change since they can be connected to the existing utilities of a primary dwelling.
Another plus is that the town increases its tax base with low-density housing, according to a case study on ADUs by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research.
A FAILED ATTEMPT IN MONTCLAIR
In 2008, an ordinance was presented to the Township Council concerning ADUs, “to assist older homeowners in maintaining their independence by providing additional income to offset property taxes and maintenance and repair costs, to provide a cost-effective means of increasing the supply of affordable rental housing in the community without changing the character of residential neighborhoods, and to further encourage the development of mixed-income neighborhoods.”
The proposed ordinance, which was not passed, said an ADU unit could have 500 to 800 square feet, have a separate entrance from the main house, have no more than one bedroom and have a kitchen and bathroom. The property owner had to occupy either the single-family dwelling or the ADU.
The proposed law set a limit of 10 new ADUs in each of the four wards, excluding ADU permits issued to those seeking to legalize a preexisting ADU.
The council raised concerns about the proposal’s impact, particularly on smaller lots, said Talley.
But the seniors group believes that, with residents now facing the COVID crisis, renting out an ADU could help both renters in need of affordable options and property owners in paying their taxes and mortgages.
“It would be a source of tax revenue for the town, revenue for the owner and increase property values,” Millspaugh said.
Talley said she is now working with the seniors to revisit the ordinance with amendments that address the council’s concerns.
Montclair Housing Commission co-Chair William Scott, who was part of the push for ADUs in 2008, said that by converting garages into living suites, the look of the home would not be altered.
Questions still remain on how the ADUs would be limited to seniors only, and how the rents collected would be deemed affordable. Neither were regulated in the proposed 2008 ordinance.
SENIOR POPULATION GROWTH
In Montclair, 13 percent of the population is 65 and older. State projections set growth of the senior population at 2 percent every five years.
“The first baby boomers reached 65 years old in 2011,” said Dr. Luke Rogers, chief of the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Branch. “Since then, there’s been a rapid increase in the size of the 65-and-older population, which grew by over a third since 2010. No other age group saw such a fast increase. In fact, the under-18 population was smaller in 2019 than it was in 2010, in part due to lower fertility in the United States.”
According to census numbers, the average retirement income per household in New Jersey is $25,577, while the average Social Security income per household is $18,721.
Eighteen percent of New Jersey’s seniors are still working, and 31 percent of New Jerseyans aged 60 and over receive food stamps.
Last year, after analyzing historical records of shelter admissions in three major American cities, including New York, a team of researchers led by Dennis P. Culhane, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice and one of the country’s leading authorities on homelessness, published a report projecting that, in the next 10 years, the number of elderly people experiencing homelessness in the United States would nearly triple, “as a wave of baby boomers who have historically made up the largest share of the homeless population ages. And that was before a pandemic arrived to stretch what remains of the social safety net to the breaking point.”
California passed state legislation that allowed, as of January, for single-family and multifamily properties to add one ADU. A website walks residents through the process and offers blueprints and suggested financing. Oregon allows for ADUs on single-family lots, and while most laws require off-street parking, a new amendment in that state removed that requirement, along with a requirement that the property be owner-occupied. Massachusetts also allows for ADUs.
All three states have ordinances that set forth regulations for the location, permit process, deed restrictions, zoning incentives and design and development standards for ADUs.
HUD suggests that in order for an ADU program to succeed, it has to be flexible, uncomplicated, include fiscal incentives and be supported by a public education campaign that increases awareness and generates community support.
“The town needs to be planning for the future, not the past. The family concept is more fluid today,” Millspaugh said.