Pocket Neighborhoods; A Possible Solution for Middle-Income Seniors?
By Dr. Lisa Cowley and Victor Westgate

A study by Boston College Center for Retirement Research shows that 50% of retirees in 2021 are unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living. This highlights a reality that most seniors will most likely not have sufficient financial resources the longer they live, especially when it comes to housing. It also beckons the challenge to find creative ways to provide affordable housing for all. Unfortunately, middle income seniors don’t fit the financial criteria for subsides whereas those in lower income status have channels for assistance, however limited. The situation is only going to get worse according to one study, due to the population of middle-income seniors ages 75-84 increasing from 5.57 million in 2014 to 10.81 million in 2029.

As more and more of us age, assisted living housing and nursing homes will not be able to keep up with the demand of those who need housing and health care assistance. In addition, nursing homes have struggled in many ways to accept all the patients needing care and nursing home administrators have told us that aging and dying in one’s home with health services provided is the future.

In our book Pack Lightly: Making Sense of the Second Half of Your Life, we dedicate our first chapter to interviewing baby boomers and provide an overview of housing and community arrangements. We feature baby boomers, including ourselves, who at the time of the writing were living in single dwelling residences and questioned how they could age in place in their present rural communities if they needed more care. Other interviewees resided in fifty-five+ communities, including a couple who lived in a CCRC, Life Plan community, which is costly and out of reach for most middle-income seniors. At the time of our writing, we did not turn our attention on another type of developed community called a “pocket neighborhood.”

A pocket neighborhood according to the architect, Ross Chapin, who in the early 1990’s was instrumental in spearheading this movement, is a community with 9-12 small homes, apartments or even trailers designed and built with the front of each structure facing the common area. The homes are smaller and yards are smaller in size than most traditional homes and are more efficient due to their smaller footprint. Most of the time there is a separation of living and vehicles, which is a departure from the typical development homes of today, with the two car garages all facing toward the street. The common area in most cases is a green but it can be a large house and becomes a focal point or place for neighbors to meet, sometimes sharing a meal or conversation. In his book, “Pocket Neighborhoods, Creating Small-scale Community in a Large-Scale World”, Chapin delves into the subject in great detail with information, design photos, as well as beautiful photographs of such communities being established around the country. Some of the pocket neighborhoods are also co-housing, which are known as intentional communities, where the residents coming together share common values and commitments. Other pocket neighbors are designed to balance more privacy with options for community but not as a requirement.

It should also be noted that these communities were inspired from such neighborhoods established in Denmark in the 1970s where community is important to people of all ages and level of family circumstance: young and old, single or married, with kids or empty nesters are all attracted to these pocket neighborhoods. In an era, where one in five Americans feel lonely, the potential for social connectivity/care in these neighborhoods can be life sustaining for all. Chapin uses the analogy in his book of visualizing, “…the Russian nesting dolls; individual houses with their own private yards, nestled within pocket neighborhoods of homes on a block or alley, all within a larger sub-neighborhood bordered by busy city streets and a park.”

Can this neighborhood design model, not originally created exclusively for older adults, inspire innovative thinking about the dilemma for middle-income boomers as they age? Are housing costs in the pocket neighborhood really lower? In theory, on paper, they should be. The structures in pocket neighborhoods are small and efficient, lowering cost for heat and other utilities and since property size is small with less outside maintenance, even though the common area maintenance may raise the cost for each home buyer through a LOA or an HOA fee. The initial home price should reflect the smaller size and because the developer can buy up an acre of land and put 10 small homes as opposed to one larger home.

However, pocket neighborhoods we have investigated in the Northeast still seem out of reach financially for the middle-income senior. Is it a supply and demand situation? Are the pocket neighborhoods built today only profit driven? In fairness, the time a developer spends dealing with the town’s antiqued zoning may factor into the price, especially in towns and cities with strict laws concerning specifics on house size that presently exist on the books. As a matter of fact, Ross Chapin noted that large homes on Whidbey Island in Washington State were not efficient for the 1–2-member household and he had to fight to create a “cottage housing ordinance,” when he started getting involved in the 1990’s.

Many experts believe the only solution to the overall housing challenge for aging seniors is cooperation between private investors and government regulators. Perhaps then housing will be more creative and affordable in the near future as more of us advocate for change.

Lastly, many of you reading this article feel you have no interest in moving. You love where you live and you are never going to leave. That is fine if your home is located in a community where you can age safely in place, with features such as a bedroom on the first floor, easy public transportation close by, services and other amenities within walking distance. If you are looking for somewhere else to live, are interested in exploring another type community with a potential for more social connectivity/care, you may want to look into a pocket neighborhood.


Dr. Lisa Cowley, a holistic chiropractor and nutritional counselor of 25 years, along with her husband, Victor Westgate, a high school educator of 34 years, are authors of Pack Lightly: Making Sense of the Second Half of Your Life. You can learn more at: www.joyinaging.com


Image Credit: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/studio-d/43923667


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