Could Accessory Dwelling Units Be a Solution, Albeit Small, to Housing Shortage?

An increasing number of jurisdictions, including Denver, Englewood, Boulder, Golden and Arvada, are allowing the construction of a second dwelling unit for homes zoned for single-family. The common term for them is “Accessory Dwelling Unit” or ADU. Golden, unlike the other cities, allows an ADU on properties zoned for either one or two dwelling units.

The ordinances that allow such units include rules that distinguish a home with an ADU from, say, a duplex. For example, they cannot have their owned legal description and can’t have separate water and sewer connections.

Sixty-two ADUs have been approved under Golden’s 2009 ADU ordinance. Denver has permitted 263 ADUs just since Jan. 1, 2016.

Arvada had Jefferson County’s first ADU ordinance, enacted in 2007. Its key points were:

> The property owner must live on site, in either the main house or in the ADU.

> The ADU is limited to 800 SF, or 40% of main home’s size. Minimum size is 200 SF.

> No more than 1 bedroom is allowed.

> No more than two persons may live in a unit up to 600 SF, or three persons in a unit between 600 and 800 SF.

> One on-site parking space is required.

> The ADU’s design must be consistent with that of the principal unit, and the entrance, if visible from the street, must be clearly subordinate to the primary home’s entrance.

These are only some of the requirements with which a homeowner must comply when adding an ADU to his or her property.

The cities differ in some of their requirements. For example, Arvada forbids a home business in an accessory dwelling unit, but Golden’s code does not reference that usage.

ADUs can be within the primary structure (such as a walk-out basement) or in a separate structure, either above a detached garage or as a standalone structure. 

There are many uses for ADUs. One use is to create a rental unit, helping homeowners with their ownership costs. Another is to provide a “mother-in-law” unit that provides an elderly family member with independent living but in close proximity to family. Conversely, an elderly homeowner might use an ADU to provide living quarters for a caregiver who needs to be close by. Ditto for a family which has hired a nanny for their young children.

In Golden, each ADU requires an allocation under Golden’s 1% growth limitation. Only Boulder, among the other cities that allow ADUs, has such an ordinance.

California, with its high housing costs, appears to be the national leader in the adoption of ADUs. Here’s some useful information from an article I found online from the New York and Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative:

Parts of California have welcomed ADUs for decades while others operated under much stricter rules. This created a complex patchwork of local regulations that was difficult for residents and builders to navigate. The new laws relaxed regulations around setback requirements, minimum lot sizes and other elements that previously made building ADUs difficult in some areas.

Legislative changes at the state and local levels appear to have opened the floodgates for ADU permits in parts of California, including San Jose, where ADU permits issued per year went from 192 in 2018 to 416 in 2019, according to www.BuildinganADU.com.

In Redwood City, a smaller city in the Bay Area, ADU permit issuance doubled during the same period.

The idea appears to be popular among older homeowners: 84 percent of people 50 and older would construct an ADU in order to provide a home for a loved one in need of care, and according to a 2018 study on ADUs by AARP.

The federal government backed the idea of accessory dwellings in the 1990s, with a Task Force on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing recommending removing restrictions on accessory apartments to enable elders to age in place, according to 2008 research in the Journal of Aging and Policy.

Data on the effectiveness of ADUs for caregiving families is scarce, beyond anecdotal evidence and numbers illuminating their popularity in cities where they’re legal and encouraged.

California’s openness to ADUs is part of the state’s strategy to tackle its crushing housing market, which with runaway prices and low housing stock threatens to shut out residents who’ve been living in Bay Area cities like San Francisco or San Jose for decades.

I have become familiar with a local company, Verdant Living, that specializes in the construction of ADUs, or “backyard bungalows.”  Their website is www.VerdantLiving.us. Owner John Phillips pointed me toward another useful website, www.AccessoryDwellings.org.

You’ve Heard of NIMBY (‘Not in My Backyard’). You’ll Be Hearing About YIMBY in 2021.

One of the many bills passed by the Democratic House which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not allowed to be acted on in the Senate is the YIMBY Act. If, as may well happen, the Democrats take control of the U.S. Senate in this year’s election, that act could become law next year.

The YIMBY Act (HR 4351) was bi-partisan, co-sponsored by Democrat Denny Heck of Washington and Republican Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana. It was passed on a voice vote by the House of Representatives on Mar. 2, 2020. Here’s a link to the full text of HR 4351.

Here’s how the act is described and promoted at www.UpForGrowth.org:

The Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) Act encourages localities to eliminate discriminatory land use policies and remove barriers that prevent needed housing from being built around the country.

The YIMBY Act achieves these goals by requiring Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) recipients to report periodically on the extent to which they are removing discriminatory land use policies and implementing inclusive and affordable housing policies detailed by the bill.

The YIMBY Act increases transparency in land use, zoning, and housing decisions; sheds light on exclusionary polices; and ultimately encourages localities to eliminate barriers to much-needed housing.

Background:

According to Up for Growth’s “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.” report, the United States has underproduced housing by 7.3 million homes from 2000 to 2015.

Exclusionary land use policies — including zoning and density restrictions, onerous parking requirements, and other burdensome development regulations — drive a severe housing shortage and affordability crisis.

The “Missing Millions of Homes” report from the New Democratic Coalition shows that the cost of shelter has been the single largest increase in household budgets in the last 15 years and that the median U.S. family now spends 42% of its income on housing.

Housing underproduction also increases cost of living for families, inhibits geographic mobility, burdens both renters and buyers, and stifles economic productivity. By one estimate, from 1964 to 2009, our national housing shortage lowered aggregate economic growth by 36 percent.

Many of these land use policies are rooted in racism and classism. Their continued existence perpetuates housing discrimination and contributes to the housing affordability crisis affecting large parts of the United States.

Legislative Solution:

The YIMBY Act increases transparency and encourages more thoughtful & inclusive development practices by requiring localities to fully examine and disclose their housing policy decisions.

The bill provides localities a framework for smart policymaking and regulatory practices, thus promoting more inclusive development principles.

The YIMBY Act is an important first step in decreasing the barriers to smart, inclusive growth and reducing the negative and cumulative impact of exclusionary housing policies. It is also a way to clearly demonstrate that the federal government takes seriously the challenges created by exclusionary zoning.

This proposal has not escaped the attention of conservatives, who consider it an attack on suburbia, primarily by eliminating single-family zoning. Allowing greater density and making housing more affordable means to them the introduction of lower-income and therefore racially diverse populations into communities which are historically white and upper-middle or upper income neighborhoods. It’s worth noting that it’s an argument that does indeed divide conservatives from liberals and, because of how it is being promoted, will be a factor in this year’s election.

However, we should remember that zoning laws are matters of local debate and enactment and cannot be forced upon localities by the federal government. That’s why the YIMBY Act only asks localities to consider the implications of their zoning decisions. Single-family zoning will only be modified or eliminated gradually if at all over time and only by a vote of locally elected representatives on city councils and county boards of commissioners. Voters would be wise to recognize fear mongering on the subject for what it is and to consider the underlying motives.

Moreover, it is inconceivable that an established and fully built out subdivision, especially one with a healthy housing stock under 30 or 40 years old, would see any effects from zoning changes. Instead you might see the legalizing of ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units), which are already popular in many jurisdictions. These units can be in walk-out basements or above detached garages, and provide a great solution for modestly increasing a neighborhood’s and city’s density.

What we are already seeing in the older communities with pre-1970 bungalows is the scraping of isolated homes, making way for attached townhomes. Again, this is only done by the enactment of zoning changes by your elected officials who are not going to act in opposition to their constituents’ loudly expressed viewpoints.

No matter who is elected on the national level or what legislation is passed, housing will always be an expression and result of very localized democratic control — that’s democratic with a small “D.”

Moreover, the YIMBY Act would only apply to localities which accept Community Development Block Grants, for which no community needs to apply.

Accessory Dwelling Units Are Gaining in Popularity

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have been around for a long time. Fonzie lived in one (above the Cunningham’s garage), but they fell out of favor with local governments. Recently, local governments have warmed up to ADUs, promulgating zoning regulations encouraging them, especially detached units in a backyard or above a garage.

You may have heard ADUs referred to as backyard bungalows, micro homes, retirement cottages, guest houses, mancaves, she-sheds, or mi casita. They are created for many reasons: independent living for relatives (aging parents, 20- somethings), rental income/investment property, home office, studio, etc. These days it could be quarantine quarters.

Local governments like them as one way to address the pressing issue of affordable housing in a way that is sustainable, is a compliment to the neighborhood, and provides more affordable housing. People hardly realize they are there, and when they do, often want one.

ADUs have been approved by the state of California, where affordable housing is a crisis throughout the state.

The tiny house movement has popularized the idea of radical downsizing and the concept that living in a small space has many positives. ADU’s are not tiny houses, as the term is used today. ADUs are something more. Although small, they are a complete living unit with a full kitchen and bathroom, with a comfortable living area suitable for entertaining. They have a foundation and meet all code requirements. ADUs are more expensive than tiny homes, but they can be worth it.

How much do they cost? Pre-designed manufactured (built off-site) units can be less than $200,000, and even less depending on the characteristics of the site and choices made by the owner.

Would you like to know more? A good resource is at www.AccessoryDwellings.org, created by Kol Peterson. Peterson lives in Portland, Oregon (an early adopter of ADUs), has built many himself, and conducts workshops on all aspects of the process. 

ADU above a garage

Locally, a company called Verdant Living sells manufactured ADUs, not ones that are “stick-built” on-site, so if that works for you, you can email them at bungalow@verdantliving.us for more information.  They can refer you to other companies which build ADUs, whether free-standing, over your garage, or in a walk-out basement.

Personally, I have sold homes which have ADUs. Having a rentable unit can make a home more affordable to many buyers.