The city of Laurel, frustrated by a shortage of affordable housing for elderly and disabled people, has adopted residential zoning laws to allow those people a wider variety of housing options.
Under the new laws, adult group homes, congregate living arrangements and apartments created within single-family residences will be allowed when the intended residents are senior citizens or disabled people, said Stephen Turney, president of Laurel's five-member City Council. County and city laws currently ban such arrangements, except by special exception.
City officials said they hope the new regulations will encourage more families to take in elderly relatives by adding rooms or converting basements into separate living spaces. Officials said they hope that other shared living arrangements will help elderly and disabled residents save money and gain companionship.
"If this persuades some seniors who own homes to take in another senior and get a little rent money from it, that would be great," Turney said.
Housing and senior citizen advocates say Laurel's actions address seniors' attempts to maintain their quality of life as they search for inexpensive housing.
Housing experts say officials, after pouring federal money into subsidizing nursing homes for the elderly in the 1980s, have begun to look for ways to help people remain in their homes.
Peggy Sand, housing specialist for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, characterized Laurel's legislation as part of "a growing trend throughout the region" toward imaginative housing solutions.
Rodney Forbes, a 62-year-old government retiree, applauds Laurel's efforts. He said that although his home is paid for and he is financially secure, he worries about the future of two friends who struggle living alone. Forbes said they do not want to move to a nursing home and are unable to afford to live in private retirement communities similar to the newly approved congregate living arrangements, in which residents have separate living areas but share space such as dining rooms.
"A lot of seniors are just no longer able to live in their home alone, but that doesn't mean they're ready for a nursing home . . . . They need something in between," he said.
Forbes contends that most seniors, including himself, would prefer to remain in their homes and active in their communities for as long as possible. Statistics back up his assertion.
According to a survey last year by the American Association of Retired Persons, 89 percent of all senior citizens want to live out their retirement in their homes.
"The problem is finding ways to accomplish this when often the house is too large and costly to maintain," said Katie Sloane, a housing specialist with AARP.
Laurel is one of only a handful of Maryland municipalities with zoning autonomy, and the new zoning ordinances are unique in Prince George's County. The County Council would have to amend its zoning ordinances for other municipalities to follow suit.
The zoning changes are part of a wholesale revision of the city's zoning code, which was last updated in 1974.
Two and a half years ago, Laurel's City Council considered a proposal for a privately developed senior citizen apartment complex where rents would range from $1,400 to $2,000 a month. The proposal eventually was rejected as too expensive for most elderly Laurel residents, but it underscored the need to address the shortage of affordable housing.
Steve Mordfin, senior city planner, said most elderly residents in Laurel have no trouble finding housing, but often cannot afford the rent or tolerate the distance from family members.