Under One Roof: Multi-generational households

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Principal | Urban Designer

“Homeownership is the cornerstone of a strong community.” - Rick Renzi

We often hear aspirational quotes about home ownership, either for political, real estate marketing or urban planning reasons. The post Second World War generation laid the foundation for an economy based on increasing their housing equity into bigger homes. The 70s and 80s saw many baby boomers buy their homes, shaping the character of many of our suburbs today.

Based on general population statistics, this group is likely to represent around 25% of the total population by 2030. Between now until then, many baby boomer families will start downsizing their homes and looking towards retirement living. Meanwhile, their children–Generation X and Millennials–have graduated from school, become more independent and are balancing their career, financial and social goals in life. Yet, due to the rising cost of living and the competitive housing market, the dreams of owning a bigger (or eventually upgrading one) may not be as feasible today as it was before. For many singles and young families, living in smaller houses and compact communities is either a popular choice and/or a necessity due to a housing affordability issue.

As an urban designer, one question comes to mind: how can we design homes that consider the housing needs of different generations within our society, or, better yet, within the same community they grow up in? While the idea of home ownership may be different for everyone, i.e. Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials, we all want the opportunity to build home equity for our family and retirement. This is why many policymakers and municipalities are tackling affordable housing and rethinking social and urban planning to produce better housing policies and typologies.

Growing up in Asia, I am familiar with the idea of the multi-generational households where extended families live “under one roof” or on a single ancestral compound. Examples of these traditionally shared residences are the Courtyard House in China and the countryside properties in the provinces of the Philippines. These traditional housing types provide the flexibility of accommodating the new couples or young families to live alongside their parents. They often provide social infrastructure and allow the close bonding between grandparents and their grandchildren. As an advocate for complete communities, I feel we must pay attention to multi-generation housing and aging-in-place (a term used to describe a person living in the residence of their choice, for as long as they are able, as they age) concepts.

If you have seen the ‘70s American television sitcom Happy Days, you may be familiar with the so-called “Fonzie flat”. The flat is a studio space that sits above the Cunningham family’s garage where Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli (also known as “Fonzie” hence the name of the flat) lives. Four decades later, several states in Australia (9,437 miles away from America) saw this type of housing as a solution to the affordable housing crisis in anticipation of the projected population growth. The government began approving “Fonzie Flats” (or “Granny Flats”) where the lofts could be marketed to singles and couples “on moderate income”.  Yet, several years after the emergence of these flats, issues related to the visual and financial impacts emerged with critics citing “backyard eyesores” and “attracting capital gains tax” on the sale of homes.

Yet, with that being said, we continue to see more factors leading to an increase in multi-generational households in America. According to Generations United, a non-profit organization that promotes intergenerational living, some of these factors include:

  • Slower Starts: People are marrying later and children continuing to live with their parents, by choice or necessity.
  • Immigration: Latin Americans and Asians are more likely to live in multi-generational households.
  • Health and disability issues: People move in with their family for support due to chronic conditions and disabilities.
  • Economic feasibility and social infrastructure: There are advantages of shared household expenses and aging-in-place lifestyles for both young families and the elderly.

Based on such factors and the evolving lifestyles of older Americans, many families are embracing more traditional household arrangements. What it means for the construction industry is that there has been a shift for developers and architects to target at a housing product that is flexible and innovative enough to be built on the existing majority communities that range from the ‘50s suburban model to newer complete communities. Today’s homebuilders and developers are already marketing multi-generational suites that meet the increasingly flexible family scenario. Even more remarkable are their cool names like GenSmart Suites by Pardee Homes  or NextGen Communities by Lennar.  According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of the 2018 census data, a record 64 million people, or 20 per cent of the U.S. population, are now living with multi-generations under one roof.  

Meanwhile, in Canada, one real estate article titled, Magical backyards: gardens or laneway suites? The choice could be yours highlighted the adoption of the Official Plan and zoning bylaw amendments by Toronto’s city council to permit laneway suites in the Toronto and East York District. The plan offers “new rental housing opportunities within established neighbourhoods, providing a wider range of low-density housing options while enhancing neighbourhood and community character”. Since 2006, the City of Vancouver has investigated laneway housing as a solution to the city’s housing problems. Laneway houses provide flexibility for homeowners to facilitate changes to their property in response to the growth and needs of the family. These needs can include accommodations for the elderly with accessibility needs to be close to the family, or ‘urban cabins’ for children who have returned from their studies and desire independence while starting out their careers. With more than 3,300 permits for laneway suites issued since the program was introduced in 2009, Vancouver is expecting about 4,000 new suites over the next decade.

Following the success of Vancouver, other cities like Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary and Edmonton are making headlines on their legislation, market positioning and experimentation on the idea of laneway suites tailored to their specific location and public acceptance. In Winnipeg, the concept of Secondary Suites (as commonly referred to in Manitoba) has long been promoted by the city’s Urban Planning division. A Secondary Suite is defined as a small self-contained (additional) dwelling unit on the same zoning lot, either within the existing dwelling or as a separate detached dwelling unit:

  • Secondary Suite within the existing dwelling below grade
  • Secondary Suite within the existing dwelling above grade
  • Stand Along Secondary Suite (also known as Granny Flat)
  • Garage Secondary Suite above grade (remember the Fonzie Flat?)
  • Garage Secondary Suite at grade (also known as Coach House)

The approval process is governed by a set of regulations, which has actually been decreased to make it easier for people to build. Some of the requirements are, but not limited to:

  • Detached Secondary suites can be no larger than 600 square feet.
  • Attached Secondary suites can be no larger than one-third the size of the building or 800 square feet, whichever is less

The province of Manitoba even has a Secondary Suite program that provides financial aid to eligible homeowners for 50 per cent of the construction and renovation costs, to a maximum of $35,000 in a 10-year agreement. This agreement is subject to the income threshold in accordance to the Affordable Housing Rental Program Income Limits as set out by Manitoba Housing.  

Multi-generational households, such as the secondary and laneway suites, provide a solution to our affordability problem and if developed properly, can shape a thriving community that meets the needs of generations–from silver to millennials. What other kinds of multi-generational housing is your city known for?

3150 Livernois Road,
Unit 136
Troy, Michigan
Toll: 844-669-6234

289 Garry Street,
Unit 300
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3C 1H9
Toll: 844-669-6234

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