March 26, 2018
Greater Hartford Health

Billed as a cheaper senior-care option, 'granny pods' see sluggish CT rollout

Photo \\ Contributed
Photo \\ Contributed
A “granny pod” built by New York-based Echo Cottages. This home was sold to a Delaware customer, but Echo is hoping to make inroads in Connecticut.
Photos \\ Contributed
An Echo Cottages unit in Ithaca, N.Y. (Below) An overhead view of an Echo Cottages layout, which includes a kitchen, living room, and bedroom.
Photo \\ HBJ File
Julianne Roth, president of West Hartford homecare provider Companions for Living, likes the granny-pod idea.
Sara Bronin, Chair, Planning and Zoning Commission, Hartford
Matthew Barrett, CEO, Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities

Nursing Home Costs in CT (2016)

Average Daily Rate: $414

Average Annual Rate: $151,200

Change from

previous year (2015): 1.8%

Annual % change

over past five years: 2.4%

Avg. annual inflation

rate (1988 – 2015): 5.1%

Source: Connecticut Partnership

for Long-Term Care

An estimated 459,000 family members in Connecticut are providing millions of hours of care to adult loved ones every year, according to AARP's Public Policy Institute.

Weighing that, Connecticut's aging population and the high costs of long-term care, the state legislature last year created a potentially cheaper option for families that want to keep an elderly or disabled loved one at home as long as possible.

The new law allows for temporary healthcare structures, known colloquially as "granny pods," to be built in single-family neighborhoods.

Granny pods are small, portable, standalone, prefabricated homes that connect to sewer and water services. The idea is to provide an alternative for property owners who don't have space for a parent, or who can't afford to build an addition or in-law apartment or pay for assisted-living or nursing-home care.

"The concept is innovative and recognizes the strong preference seniors have to live in their own home and community as long as possible," Tia Murphy, an AARP volunteer, told lawmakers last year. "The healthcare structures have the added benefit of not just providing proximity to family caregiver support and assistance, but also a degree of privacy, independence and autonomy for the individual needing care."

The potential granny pod market is big in Connecticut, with nearly 1 million people projected to be age 60 or older by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from about 600,000 at the turn of the century.

In addition, there's a greater focus in the state to keep aging residents in their own homes, as a way to reduce healthcare costs and improve quality of life.

But don't look for a granny-pod explosion anytime soon, experts say.

There doesn't appear to be much demand, at least right now. Hartford Business Journal queried Hartford County's 29 cities and towns, receiving answers from 18 municipalities. None had received any granny-pod applications since the law passed last summer.

In addition, many local governments have seized on an opt-out provision in the law, which means anyone who applies for a granny-pod building permit will face existing, often stricter local zoning statutes.

Of the 18 municipalities that responded to HBJ's survey, 12 opted out or are in the process of doing so. The others said they're looking to see what nearby towns do, or that the opt-out has led to a discussion about updating local zoning rules to better accommodate families with elderly parents.

In addition, some officials said there are onerous requirements in the new law that may further slow activity. The law, for example, allows cities and towns to require applicants to post a performance bond of up to $50,000.

Another potential headache for municipalities is that the law requires an applicant to provide a doctor's note justifying the medical need to have the dwelling installed.

Sparking a conversation

John Guszkowski, director of planning and development at CME Engineering in Mansfield, served on a state taskforce that studied granny pods leading up to the passage of the law last year.

Guszkowski said it's "not at all surprising" that towns have opted out of the new law and that there's been a lack of overall demand from property owners.

"There won't be a tidal wave of applications," he said. "This wasn't 250 constituents begging, it was about expanding available options."

That could change over time, as the population ages and Connecticut's long-term care costs — already among the highest in the nation — potentially increase.

Guszkowski said the new law is at the very least forcing dialogue at the local level about elderly living options.

"That was kind of the point, to create a conversation," he said.

Some municipal officials who have opted out said their zoning rules are accommodating enough. They, for example, allow for the addition of in-law apartments. Some municipalities, such as Hartford and South Windsor, allow for accessory units to be built in existing structures, such as a barn or garage.

Sara Bronin, chair of Hartford's planning and zoning commission, said an abundance of multifamily and affordable housing options was another reason the city opted out of the granny-pod law, which is seen as overreaching by many local officials.

"The heart of local zoning is local control over what is built in your town," she said. "So I'm not surprised many municipalities have opted out."

Officials from some opt-out towns, including Plainville, stated a desire to review local zoning rules to make them more accommodating.

"Plainville has a fairly liberal accessory apartment regulation that the [planning and zoning commission] is currently working on to effect a faster approval process for those with medical needs similar to those described in the statute, in addition to potentially reducing the minimum floor area requirements," said Mark S. DeVoe, the town's director of planning and economic development.

Windsor Locks planning officials have also said they're going to develop regulations aimed at serving the demographic targeted by the granny-pod law, according to Town Planner Jennifer Valentino Rodriguez.

"Often new legislation will spark or expand important conversations," she said.

Granny-pod manufacturer eyes CT

At least several companies build granny pods, including Echo Cottages in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

Asked about the lack of demand in Connecticut so far, Katharine Di Cerbo, a marketing consultant for Echo, said she's not sure if residents here are fully aware of the option.

"We've been getting some inquiries from Connecticut, but I don't think they've been related to the new law," she said.

Echo has been networking with homecare providers in the state and is hoping to spread awareness of granny pods.

Given Connecticut's proximity to New York, Di Cerbo said she hopes this can become a new market for Echo.

An Echo unit costs $64,999 plus approximately $10,000 to $12,000 for delivery and installation, Di Cerbo said. The company, founded in 2011, has sold eight units so far.

"Zoning is our No. 1 obstacle," Di Cerbo said.

Some companies that make granny pods often market their cost compared to a year in a nursing home.

In Connecticut, the average annual cost of staying in a nursing home is more than $151,000, according to the state Office of Policy and Management.

The cost comparison is "a happy coincidence, not the main driver," for Echo's buyers, Di Cerbo said.

"It's that people really want to keep a careful eye on their parents without sacrificing either their own independence or their parents' independence," she said.

Skepticism, concern

The problem with comparing long-term care costs with the costs of putting a tiny home in your backyard, is that the two things aren't really comparable, said Matthew Barrett, CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents nursing-home and assisted-living operators.

"The nursing-home sector has no objection to these structures if towns want to allow them, and they could meet the needs of some needing long-term care services, but they should never be characterized as an alternative to nursing homes," Barrett said.

For family members with modest needs, you'd have to at least factor in the cost of a homecare service or other supports in addition to the cost of a pod, Barrett said.

For those with more complex needs, buying a small cottage would be just the start.

"The very difficult part is the next step — to find the services the person needs," Barrett said.

Julianne Roth, president of homecare provider Companions for Living, and board chair of the Connecticut Association for Homecare Agencies, said none of her 130 providers have come across a client living in a granny pod.

"I think they're a fantastic idea," she said. "That's what we do all the time — help people stay in their homes longer."

Roth said she would like her agency to partner with a granny-pod builder for cross-marketing purposes.

But she's also worried about the barriers the new law sets up, and what that might mean for future care options.

"We have an explosion of people coming our way in this industry," she said. "Unless we figure something out, we're going to have a problem."

Sidebar: What is a granny pod?

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