More Cities Say Yes to Granny Apartments, ADUs

For cities that want to support granny apartments to address housing needs -- its tough -- but not impossible to revise local ordinances.

Granny apartments, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), are one way to increase density in typically low-density neighborhoods. However, they're often a hot-button issue for many communities where neighbors oppose secondary dwellings.

But, it's getting harder for cities and metro regions to establish ordinances eliminating or reducing their numbers because of their potential as affordable housing.

Granny apartments can alleviate housing crunches in congested markets, house displaced people and provide supplementary income for homeowners, which may be needed for various reasons from property upkeep to managing expenses during retirement. ADUs are common practice in some areas outside of the United States, like Europe and Columbia.

ADUs in Small Sizes, Akin to Tiny Homes

Granny apartments, according to the U.S Agency for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a 2008 case study publication, are separate living quarters of single-family homes, equipped with a kitchen and bathroom, that can be attached or detached from the main residence.

There's a whole page on Pinterest with all the great ways to make small spaces livable. Granny apartment ideology, particularly with detached styles, pairs well with the minimalist Tiny House craze and is regarded by some as a valuable solve for homelessness in cities.

HUD's case study provides examples of communities, like Santa Cruz, California, Lexington, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, that implemented ADUs because they relied on existing housing stock to meet rising demand.

The ADUs Challenge & Code Paralysis

In 2016 California passed a new ADU law clearing code hurdles and potentially lowering costs to enable homeowners to build secondary dwellings on their properties. Sonoma County -- which reportedly lost about 3,000 residential structures in the 2017 Northern California Wildfires -- is thinking about loosening local granny apartment restrictions in developing transitional housing plans. 

Ira Belgrade, a Los Angeles homeowner who claims to be the first in the city to get a legal ADU permit for his granny apartment, runs the website offering encouragement and services to homeowners looking to get their illegal units above board. On his website he says that while it's now legal, it's complicated, but he has cracked the code. However, the city of Los Angeles is working on a local ordinance that is more restrictive than the state's new law, according to CBS Los Angeles. The reason? Utility connections as they relate to housing standards and safety.

Arlington County, Virginia, and other areas of the Beltway around the nation's capital, are looking to reduce restrictions after only 20 homeowners out of 28,000 eligible successfully obtained ADU licenses over the last eight years, according to the Washington Post.

Anthony Flint, who was formerly with the Office for Commonwealth Development, wrote for CityLab in 2016 that Massachusetts also struggled with utilizing granny apartments to increase housing opportunities:

Fueled by NIMBYism and concerns about density and school enrollment and parking and congestion, cities and towns wrote reams of codes requiring that property owners prove any occupants of ADUs were actually related. If not, owners could expect to be visited by inspectors checking out separate entrances and working kitchens and evidence of occupation, and brace for a fine. Eagle-eyed neighbors spotting a second mailbox or satellite dish were more than happy to alert the authorities," Flint wrote.

It's a code paralysis the former Governor Mitt Romney's administration couldn't find its way around as it sought to use existing ADUs to support Massachusetts' smart growth and transit-oriented development goals.

Additionally, communities from San Francisco to New Orleans and New York City are concerned ADUs, along with other housing stock, could be used for short-term rentals through services like Airbnb rather than housing for residents.

Reasonable Process Established for Granny Apartments 

Flint wrote about the Colorado town of Durango that seemed to get around this code paralysis between 2009 and 2013 as it confronted housing and community development issues.

Durango updated its Land Use and Development Code, calling out ADUs as acceptable housing stock. Flint called Durango's process reasonable because the code:

  • Limits the number of occupants -- no more than five unrelated people
  • Places a minimum size of living space at 550 square feet
  • Requires the main home to be owner-occupied
  • Bans short-term vacation rentals, such as through Airbnb
  • Implements design guidelines for balconies, window placements and exterior staircases

The city chose to eliminate the possibility of absentee landlords, as well as renting spaces for tourism, Flint wrote.

No Secret Sauce for Granny Apartments

After the new code was established, the town set up an amnesty program for existing ADUs as part of its ADU Program. In exchange for becoming a legal unit in the city, owners were asked to:

  • Pay fees ranging from $2,000 to $9,000
  • Sign affidavits on structural safety
  • Provide occupancy and structural details, like utilities

Not everyone in Durango was happy, but the city stood firm, releasing the following information video to address concerns of the opposition:

HUD directs those interested to the Santa Cruz ADU Manual, and the city has a Plan Sets Book with seven prototype ADU designs, which may be purchased.

Access Santa Cruz ADU publications information on the city's website.

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