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Increasing Housing Options in Rural Communities

Four inspiring examples — and three quick-tips

Three images showing a tiny house under construction, a four-unit home and a bathtub safety seat and grab bar

Courtesy images

Clockwise from left: Tiny house construction in Bangor, Maine; fourplex housing in Lemmon, South Dakota; home safety assistance (via a bath chair and grab bar) in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

This article comes out of the lessons learned and shared through the AARP Rural Lab, a monthly online gathering of leaders from rural and remote communities invited by AARP state offices. Participants receive access to expert assistance and opportunities for connecting with peers nationwide.

On the plus side, 8 out of 10 older residents in rural areas own their homes, reports the Housing Assistance Council. Unfortunately, 55 percent of those homes were constructed prior to 1980. Many older homes are poorly designed for changing needs and most single-family residences contain more space than the typical older homeowner needs.

The housing challenges encountered by older residents can be especially daunting in rural areas, where limited housing choices can restrict mobility, increase isolation and create a barrier to accessing essential services, such as health care and shopping.

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Visit our Housing Archive to find articles, slideshows and free publications about housing options (including ADUs, pictured) that benefit people of all ages. 

The following rural areas have developed innovative housing solutions.

Lemmon, South Dakota

Repurposing Commercial Buildings: Key factors for successfully aging in one’s current home or community include the availability of affordable housing for people at different life stages; the cost of home maintenance and related utilities; and the availability of home modification services to accommodate changing and varied abilities. Although Lemmon, South Dakota, is home to only about 1,100 people, it has a housing shortage, particularly for older farmers and ranchers wanting to retire and move into smaller, simpler spaces. In response, in 2019 the local housing authority developed three fourplex residential buildings (pictured above) — each with single-story units that are fully accessible to a person using a wheelchair or other mobility device — and has been rehabbing abandoned or derelict homes and commercial buildings. 

Bangor, Maine

Building Tiny Houses: Bangor doesn’t have enough rental residential units to meet the demand. In 2023, the city worked with a local developer to convert a derelict mobile home park into a small home development with 34 energy-efficient 320-square-foot homes comfortably sized for singles and couples. (See an under-construction home, above.) The project provides high-quality housing to a moderate-income market, which for a single person is estimated to be $60,300. Although most of the mobile park was abandoned, a few of the lots were still rented. The developer worked with those residents to relocate to another mobile home park or move into one of the tiny homes. Moving from one of the older, uninsulated mobile homes made sense from the perspective of comfort and convenience but also economically. With lot rent, the average housing costs for the mobile home residents was between $900 and $1,200 a month. The tiny homes rent for $700 to $1,200 monthly and cost less than $100 a month for heat and utilities. 

Anchorage, Alaska

Creating ADUs: In Anchorage Alaska, AARP Alaska convened community partners to educate the local leaders and residents about the economic and social benefits of adding an accessory dwelling unit to an existing single- or multi-family property. The new provision, enacted in 2023, removes owner occupancy requirements and allows units as large as 1,200-square-feet in residential and commercial zones. Older homeowners especially benefit by being able to downsize and tap into some of their housing equity by renting the ADU — or by renting the larger home and moving into the ADU themselves. 

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Enhancing Existing Housing: Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard offers two programs to both meet the needs of older residents and provide workforce housing. Through the nonprofit’s home safety modification program, older residents are charged for home improvement work according to a sliding-scale. (One participant shared that the process made her “… feel much safer in my home. The workmanship was excellent. Everyone was polite and helpful.”) Healthy Aging’s home sharing program matches older residents who have a spare room with single adults in need of housing. Working closely with island employers, the program has made several successful matches. 

Quick-Tips for Improving Housing Options

1. Pursue a “Quick Win”

Research the existing options in your community — such as ADU policies, home share or home chore and repair services, or a property tax abatement program — and then increase awareness about what’s available. For example, in New Hampshire, in 2017 the Mount Washington Valley Age-Friendly Community initiative received an AARP Community Challenge grant to develop a brochure and informational displays about ADUs. (See the box below.)  In 2019, it received another to develop a website with information about its home share program. In Maine, Age-Friendly South Portland held public information forums and partnered with the library, municipality and public access television station to produce a program (watch the video here) about property tax abatements for older adults. 

2. Partner-Up

Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard conducted a community survey about home modification needs. The group then partnered with the local Council on Aging, Visiting Nurses Association, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association and the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank Charitable Foundation to implement the aforementioned pilot program. In Anchorage, AARP Alaska brought together partners including the city planning and economic development departments, the media, housing experts and a subsidized housing provider to educate elected officials, key decisionmakers and residents about the benefits of ADU.

3. Pursue Funding

The housing advocates in Lemmon, South Dakota, turned to a variety of sources — from wealthy people with ties to the community, to state funding opportunities and partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program. Their advice? Partner with as many groups as possible, raise awareness in the community about the benefits of development, and do your homework (and friend-work) to find the needed funding. 

Patricia Oh, Ph.D., is a senior program manager at the University of Maine Center on Aging. She works closely with Maine's age-friendly and lifelong communities ( and with the AARP Livable Communities team, supporting outreach to rural communities and municipalities that have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities

Page published January 2024

 AARP Community Challenge and Housing

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