ADUs Offered as One Option to Combat Affordable Housing Crisis
The affordable housing crisis has left some U.S. cities scrambling for solutions. One common (but sometimes controversial) proposal involves accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. These units, which are built on the same residential lot as a single-family house, go by many names, including carriage houses, granny flats, and mother-in-law suites.
In many cities, zoning regulations for residential properties can make building ADUs difficult or impossible, but some experts have advocated for loosening the laws. The idea is to increase housing density, providing more options in places where affordable housing is scarce.
Across the country, cities have seen an increased interest in ADUs.
So, what’s the downside?
“While many communities are interested in expanding housing choices by allowing ADUs in single-family areas, some residents of these areas may be concerned about ADUs changing the character of their neighborhoods or overburdening existing infrastructure,” the American Planning Association says.
“The research to date does not support fears about lower property values or parking shortages. Conversely, there are some indications that ADUs do increase the supply of affordable housing and do make significant economic contributions to their host communities, through construction activity and property taxes.”
The History of ADUs
Accessory dwelling units have been around for centuries, especially on the properties of wealthy families. Early examples included carriage houses or coach houses, which “were frequently large enough to double as living quarters for workers and stable hands,” says an AARP report.
“In fact, until the 20th century, people with land built as many homes as they wished,” the report says. “There were few or no zoning rules, municipal services, or infrastructure (utilities, roads, schools, trash collection, first-responders) to consider.”
Eventually, many ADUs were converted into rental homes. But all of that changed after World War II, as suburban communities became popular.
“With the rise of suburban single-family home developments following World War II, ADUs practically ceased to be built legally in the United States,” the report says. “Then as now, residential zoning codes typically allowed only one home per lot, regardless of the acreage and with no exceptions. Attached and detached garages occupied yard space that might otherwise have been available for ADUs.”
After decades of tight restrictions across the country, ADUs made a comeback in the ‘80s “as cities explored ways to support smaller and more affordable housing options within single-dwelling neighborhoods,” the report says.
“More recently, there’s been renewed interest at the state and local levels... in legalizing and encouraging the creation of ADUs, driven by the increasingly high cost of housing and, in some places, the belief that homeowners with suitable space shouldn’t be so restricted in the use of their property.”
In recent years, some cities have taken steps to eliminate zoning barriers to building ADUs. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, the City Council passed an ordinance in 2014 changing the city’s zoning code to allow ADUs.
“When you look at cities around the country that are facing rising housing costs, like we are, there is a list of things they have done to build needed housing,” Council Member Lisa Bender told MinnPost. “Accessory dwelling units are on that list.”
ADUs in Denver
Denver, Colorado, is one of many cities where residents and city officials are wondering whether ADUs could be a balm for the reality of skyrocketing home prices and a shortage of housing.
Some city officials have expressed interest in eliminating some of the barriers to building ADUs in the city. In fact, “the city’s 20-year plan for how Denver should look, feel, and grow specifically mentions that ADUs could help with growth, gentrification, and displacement throughout the city,” Denverite reports.
“As our city grows and changes, the way people live is changing, too,” said Laura Swartz, Communications Director for Community Planning and Development, in an interview with Denverite. “Creating an ADU can have a big impact [by] helping residents grow their home equity. These smaller dwelling units are also a low-impact way for neighborhoods to expand their range of housing choices.”
About 30% of Denver is currently zoned to allow for ADUs, and applying to rezone your property “can be complicated and tedious,” Denverite reported.
For example: Eric Dahm applied to rezone his property because he wanted to build an ADU for his 83-year-old father, according to Denverite. He first applied in September 2019, but he wasn’t approved until August 2021.
“It took over a year for me to go from starting the application to getting my first email back from the city stating that they were starting the process,” he said.
To ease the process, some have undertaken efforts to rezone entire neighborhoods at a time. But the nuanced requirements to build a city-approved ADU — from restrictions on how tall they can be to where they must be built on a property — can be prohibitive, too.
Over the past decade, city planners and other officials in Denver have seen a measurable increase in interest in ADUs.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in the rezoning, so we feel as a city that it is definitely gaining momentum,” Josh Palmeri, a senior city planner for Denver, told The Colorado Sun.
In 2010, Denver issued only two ADU permits, The Sun reported. In 2019, the number reached 71 before the coronavirus shutdown led to a decline in 2020, when only 54 were issued. By early September, 32 ADU permits had been issued so far in 2021.
How would loosening the laws around ADUs affect this rapidly growing city and its lack of affordable housing? Only time will tell.
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