As Newton’s population ages—and it’s aging rapidly—the city must be more responsive and forceful in terms of meeting the needs of our long-term residents. By 2030, more than 30% of Newton’s population will be 60 or older. Most of them, if recent demographics prove to be correct, will want to stay right here as they age. And why shouldn’t they? This is where they have friends, religious and social communities, roots.
But there are challenges for our aging residents. They’re asking: Where will they go if they downsize? There’s not enough apartment housing in Newton to accommodate this large cohort. How will they manage on a retirement income? How will they get around if they don’t want to drive, or can’t drive? How will they stave off social isolation if they no longer go to a job?
We owe it to our long-term residents to find answers—and soon.
Most critical is housing. We need to offer our citizens good housing options that allow them to remain in the city where they have deep roots and important ties. This, to me, is a moral and ethical imperative. It requires bold, out-of-the-box solutions, because Newton, as we all know, is an affluent community where the median single-family home is now $1.1 million and developers would rather build McMansions than apartments, even though the demographic projections for Newton show that household size in the city is going to only get smaller, not larger, for all age groups. This means the city must be pro-active and create incentives for developers to build housing that the city truly needs, not what it doesn’t need.
Here are my ideas.
We must prioritize creating mixed-use communities in our village centers by adding housing above and near shops. This is a win-win: the shops have a built-in customer base in the residents living there, and the residents have shops—and in some villages, transportation in the form of the T—they can walk to, freeing them from cars and having to travel long distances in bad weather. This must happen in all our villages, not just a few, so that, for example, older residents in Waban wishing to downsize can move to Waban Center and be near friends and neighbors, and not across town in some other village center.
We need to embrace alternative housing in the form of shareable housing, which can be extremely beneficial for seniors since it provides natural community and support, is less expensive, and enhances the quality of life.
By this I mean co-housing, which is very popular in Europe and is catching on in the U.S., especially for seniors, who live not in an “age ghetto” but in community with families and singles of all ages, becoming an integral part of a caring, committed mini-neighborhood that provides support and connection. Co-housing is, in fact, one of the most attractive forms of housing for aging adults for precisely the sustaining connection it can provide.
I also mean communal or collective housing, where people share a single-family home. This requires that we change our outdated zoning rules that prohibit more than 4 unrelated people from living in a house. Shared housing can be very beneficial for aging people living in large homes who want to bring in housemates to share expenses and enjoy life together. Why should that be prohibited?
We need to make it easier for residents to build accessory apartments, including those outside, on our property, without the need for special permits. For instance, an older person might live in the detached accessory apartment and rent out the main home for income, thus assuring financial stability while allowing that homeowner to remain in her neighborhood.
What about the high cost of living in Newton, especially for those living on retirement income?
The high cost of living in Newton is mostly due to housing. If we as a city dramatically increase the stock of smaller and denser housing—through mixed-use developments in the villages and elsewhere, and by embracing alternative shared housing—then supply will meet or outweigh demand, and housing prices will go down. Also, by living in smaller, more manageable homes, residents will save on utilities and taxes.
Plus, the more and denser housing that the city builds (as well as the more new business property that gets developed such as on Wells Avenue), the more taxes the city will collect. This will keep the city from having to raise taxes in the future, making life more affordable to those on retirement income.
Another cost saving we can create is to work out good rates with transportation services like Lyft and Uber for older adults, freeing them from having to own a car and pay for insurance, repairs, and the like. This is also a greener way of living, is less stressful, and allows seniors to give up their cars when they want to, not when they have to.