ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS = affordable housing made easy



Locating affordable housing opportunities in an already existing neighborhood can get very controversial when a project for a pocket of such households is proposed to be located where none has existed before.  On the other hand planners, funding agencies and the even the public at large are likely to find agreement in the concept of improving housing opportunities for single parent households, the marginally employed , empty nesters, workforce households, the elderly, the infirm, long distance commuters, short term residents, and so on.

Taking a broad-minded view, most would agree that the more disperse affordable housing is integrated into a community the better for society as a whole. It is a less controversial solution to allow an existing single family property owner to provide affordable housing on their own property for their own family member.  But it is difficult to control a semi-independent family member quarters from becoming an apartment for rent on the open market.  Therefore many communities have created restrictions in their zoning regulations that prevent this type of affordable housing from being built.

There is little argument against the economic and social advantages of being able to provide an addition/apartment to an existing house that could serve as a semi-independent suite for an aging parent.  However, to breakthrough the rule that only one dwelling should exist on a lot intended for one house is no small matter in a typical zoning district.  Therefore, getting a permit to build a typical ADU project, such as an apartment above a two-car detached garage, could entail changing the permitted uses in designated zoning districts, changing the definition of a dwelling unit or creating a new type of zoning district, such as what the City of Norfolk has done, to follow below.

The restrictions start with forbidding the installation of more than one kitchen in house zoned for one household.  This law was conceived at a time in the history of urban development patterns when suburbia ruled the future view of American land use; houses looked a lot alike, had the private car parked on a driveway in front of the door to an attached garage and were occupied by a two-parent household with children.  But today the facts are:
The percentage of American households with children under 18 living at home [2009 USA Today] has hit the lowest point — 46% — in half a century.
The majority of today’s households are more likely to see the advantages of related or unrelated individuals living at the same address, and eating separately is a part of that living arrangement.

The next most bothersome limitation to providing an Accessory Dwelling Unit on a single family property is the size limit of the accommodations.  In Virginia Beach the ordinance for what is called “a flex suite” provides for a maximum size of 500 SF or 20% of the floor area of the existing house.  This is roughly the area of a two-car garage.  It is very challenging to provide the facilities needed for a semi-independent lifestyle (bedroom, sitting space, kitchen, bath, private entry) in this small space.

A similar floor area restriction is very much related to the general area limit for accessory buildings, including a garage or pool house.  The limit of 500 SF for a detached garage serves as enough space for an enclosure for two cars.  The problem is there is no allowance provision for living space above the garage, typically called a carriage house.  It is very good engineering economy to construct such a living quarters over a garage with its own private entry stair.  But the zoning administrator is apt to count all of the space over the garage as additional square feet.

The criteria for habitable living space is any space with a ceiling height of 7 feet or greater.  This living space definition is found in the International Building Code.  The building official is quick to count any attic space that has a height of 7-0 feet or more as part of the 500 SF limit.  The result of this anomaly is that architects and designers of detached garages must diminish the building height to have a very minimal attic.  The 7-0 living space criteria when combined with the 500 SF floor area limit makes for some very squat looking detached garages.

I have two immediate recommendations that would help clear the way for affordable housing quarters on existing single family properties: (1) allow for a kitchen with its own cooking facilities (range) to be included in the accessory living quarters permit, and (2) do not count living space above a garage as part of the 500 SF of allowable ground area for a detached structure.  Instead, write a code provision that gives planners the discretion to allow accessory dwelling units in designated residential districts that includes kitchens and carriage houses.

The discretionary allowance for ADU’s could be required to demonstrate provision for parking for the main house as well as the accessory quarters.  There could be an architectural review of the height and width and stairs for carriage house designs.  In the Norfolk Zoning Ordinance there is a provision for what is called an Urban District.  It reads as follows:
10-12 Urban Residential District (UR).
10-12.1Purpose statement. The purpose of the Urban Residential District is to provide development opportunities in older neighborhoods by encouraging the construction of new, urban homes. The district permits a mixture of townhouses and detached one-family homes, including the possibility of auxiliary structures which can contain a secondary dwelling unit located on larger lots.
10-12.2Auxiliary structure. For purposes of the Urban Residential District, an auxiliary structure is expressly permitted to contain a dwelling unit and shall meet each of the following criteria:
(a) The structure is no greater than the primary dwelling in all dimensional aspects including, but not limited to, building height, width, length, and square footage.
(b) The structure is located on the same lot as the principal dwelling unit.

Some more progressive municipalities have taken steps to allow carriage houses on single-family properties when access and parking spaces are adequately provided.  The end result has not proved catastrophic, even when allowed to be rented to non-family member tenants.  The motivation to allow carriage house tenancy is typically associated with developments where relatively high dwelling unit density is not controversial and vacant property is at a premium.

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  • GREGORY M. FRECH

    Urban Underbelly is a blog that seeks to share the back stories of successes and struggles in achieving the visions of New Urbanism, especially in Hampton Roads, Virginia

    New Urbanism: is a city planning and architecture movement directed at the creation and restoration of vibrant neighborhood places: centralized, sustainable, walkable and socially diverse.
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