Va. launching portable housing for aging relatives

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

SALEM, VA. The Rev. Kenneth Dupin, who leads a small Methodist church here, has a vision: As America grows older, its aging adults could avoid a jarring move to the nursing home by living in small, specially equipped, temporary shelters close to relatives.

So he invented the MEDcottage, a portable high-tech dwelling that could be trucked to a family's back yard and used to shelter a loved one in need of special care.

Skeptics, however, have a different name for Dupin's product: the granny pod.

Protective of zoning laws, some local officials warn that Dupin's dwellings -- which have been authorized by Virginia's state government -- will spring up in subdivisions all over the state, creating not-in-my-back-yard tensions with neighbors and perhaps being misused.

Look at how people despise PODS, those ubiquitous big white storage boxes, critics say. Imagine, they add, if you had people living inside.

"Is it a good idea to throw people into a storage container and put them in your back yard?" said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee). "This is the granny pod. What's next? The college dropout pod?"

Such temporary shelters might work in rural and sparsely developed parts of the state, McKay said, but the impact could be enormous in crowded urban and suburban areas.

"This basically sets up an opportunity to do something legally which, prior to this, had been illegal -- which is to set up a second residence on a single-family property. It turns our zoning ordinance upside down," McKay said.

The idea, Dupin said, came to him after years of leading humanitarian missions to developing countries, and it was encouraged by a growing sense of his own mortality. But he also said it just might make a lot of money, especially since the nation's elderly population is set to double in just 10 years as more and more baby boomers hit retirement age. Surveys by AARP and others also show that large majorities prefer to live in their own homes or with loved ones rather than in retirement communities.

The Katie factor

Past a mobile home park and some car dealerships sits a small brick church. From its portico is a view of the mountains and the roof of a warehouse.

About half of its 235 members were at services one recent Sunday, many in blue jeans, shirt sleeves or even shorts, like the fellow passing the offering plate. Yet their worship service is known for its high production values. Pastor Ken is its star.

Lyrics scroll over two giant screens as a choir rocks to a karaoke-style backing track, and a funny video reminds people of upcoming elections for church officers.

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