Rooms with a view

November 22, 1991

The national housing crisis has hit the elderly especially hard. With federal housing dollars all but dried up, senior citizens who are healthy, but need help carrying out basic daily tasks, have two grim options: Remain home alone, sometimes unable to cook or dress, or go to a nursing home.

Here and there, communities have instituted creative alternatives. One is Senior Assisted Housing, an arrangement in which a homeowner rents rooms to the frail elderly and provides basic services like meals and laundry. For the elderly person, assisted housing offers a humane alternative to institutionalization. For the state, which subsidizes services for the elderly poor, it is a money-saver; the average assisted housing program costs $1,200 monthly. Average nursing home bills can top $3,000.

With those over 70 now the fastest-growing segment of the population, housing programs like this one need to be encouraged. But in Baltimore County, precisely the opposite is occurring: Zoning and development rules have created a regulatory barrier. Homeowners who want to offer assisted housing must go through the same obtuse process as a developer who proposes a new subdivision -- even if they make no external changes to their homes. Moreover, they cannot take in more than three people without a special zoning exception -- another regulatory swamp -- regardless of the number of bedrooms in their home.

The county is now considering a simple, sensible proposal to cut the red tape -- essentially, making it easier to set up an assisted housing program, and allowing up to 15 people in one home, as the state does, if size permits. There is already a predictable chorus of objections throughout the county. But county officials should not knuckle under. Helping the elderly live in dignity as part of the community is an indisputably worthy goal that officials should work hard to facilitate.

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