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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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Why OUTLAW In-law Apartments? ….arguments for legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units



The concept of an In-law apartment or an Accessory Dwelling Unit is highly acclaimed by city planners, sometimes in the same cities that prohibit them.  Take the language of the Virginia Beach zoning ordinance as a case in point.  Section 507 of its code sanctions the value of constructing semi-private living quarters for a senior family member on a property zoned for single family occupancy.  It reads: The purpose of this section is to enhance the opportunities for affordable housing and independent living available to senior citizens and disabled persons, while maintaining the tranquility and integrity of single-family residential neighborhoods.

Section 507 goes on to list several things that are not allowed in such living quarters, limits the size of the quarters to 500 SF, and sets forth additional permit application requirements, including occupancy renewal every two years.  What purpose does this ordinance serve?  Does it discourage In-law suite projects rather than encourage them?  Would a homeowner interested in building such a project be motivated to reveal to the permits office what they are doing?  The answers “None, Yes, and No” are the obvious response. 

This is a significant issue.  Housing need surveys have determined that the demand for such projects has been increasing steadily,  especially in recent years, as the baby boomer generation is entering their retirement years.  The sad truth is that too many In-law apartments that have been built are illegal or at least under the radar of permitting authorities that have not seen fit to create a proper ordinance to meet the demand. Progressive localities have addressed this housing need by adopting ordinances that guide such development rather than discourage it.

An In-law apartment might be an apartment over a garage or a basement suite. Other variations are dwellings attached to a single-family home or a living space completely detached from the home, like a small guest house. It all cases they should their own entrance, kitchen, bathroom and living space. Common space, such as laundry rooms and living rooms, are usually allowed. The separated living space required is generally from 400 to 800 square feet.

Typical of the arguments against allowing in-law apartments are imagined parking problems, overcrowding, increased traffic and aesthetic impact on a neighborhood. Planners generally agree that all of these issues can be addressed in properly worded provisions of an ordinance that allows In-law apartments in at least some designated residential zoning district categories.  Some 13 years ago, the AARP, in consort with the APA, American Planning Association, published a model ordinance guideline for what it called ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS, ADU’s.  The guideline continues to serve as a valuable resource today for jurisdictions writing their own provisions for permitting ADU’s in designated zoning districts.

In a research study published in 2008 by HUD, Office of Policy Development and Research, it concluded: Communities find that allowing accessory dwelling units is advantageous in many ways. In addition to providing practi­cal housing options for the elderly, disabled, empty nesters, and young workers, ADUs can provide additional rental income for homeowners. ADUs are smaller in size, do not require the extra expense of purchasing land, can be devel­oped by converting existing structures, and do not require additional infrastructure.

The HUD study was derived by investigating the experience of several zoning jurisdictions that had adopted ADU ordinances including one in Virginia, Fauquier County, where permit approval depends the size of the property, and availability of septic/sewer and water services. Each of three different types of units is approved by the Fauquier Office of Zoning Permitting and Inspections, provided that the units meet zoning requirements. According to the county’s zoning office, 155 accessory dwelling units and 37 efficiency apartments were permitted from 1997 to 2007.

Call them Accessory Dwelling Units or In-law suites, they are an inexpensive way for municipalities to increase their housing supply, while also increasing their property tax base. By providing affordable housing options for low- and moderate-income residents, communities can retain population groups that might otherwise be priced out of the housing market.  When accessory dwellings are allowed in the community, homeowners can generally qualify for home improvement loans to finance the construction or remodel.

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Traditional Neighborhood Design in Winfall, NC



Community Development Corporations are commonly not-for-profit organizations incorporated to provide programs, offer services and/or engage in other activities that promote and support community development. CDCs typically serve a geographic location such as a neighborhood or a town.

Such is the case for the Northern Community Development Corporation of North Carolina, serving the rural counties and communities of northeastern NC. In 2009 it partnered with the Black Family Land Trust to fund the planning and startup administration for an affordable housing project in Winfall NC. Private land on the Perquimans River was committed to the development, to be marketed to individual homeowners, 50% market rate, 50% affordable. A portion of the project site existed as a community park, boarded by the Windfall Town Hall building with an additional 3 acres of vacant land, formerly a slag dump, surrounded by neighboring farms and homestead properties.

The project met the mission objectives of the sponsoring non-profit entities: for NCDC, to increase low income housing opportunities and workforce homeownership; providing equitable socio-economic opportunities for minority populations. It also met the land conservation objectives of the Black Family Trust to provide educational, technical and financial services to ensure, protect, and preserve African American land ownership.

With the property pledged to the project, funds were allocated by the partnership to hire an architectural firm well experienced in the planning and design of affordable house plans for small lots in the character of Traditional Neighborhood Design (architecturally consistent with the historical character of the surrounding communities). The funds also provided for the consulting services of a renowned landscape planner, site designer, author and lecturer who would conceptualize the overall plan development plan.

The master plan of the site as well as the individual house plan designs were provided by GMF+ ASSOCIATES, architects, and Randall Arendt of Greener Prospects. Some of the final presentation designs are shown on this site. What wasn’t anticipated was the political ambivalence that upended the good intentions of the humanitarian and conservation objectives of the non-profit sponsors, the diligence of the design professionals and the generosity of the land-developer.

Throughout the course of the planning studies there were meetings with the mayor, town council, fire department, public works, surrounding land owners and other interested parties. Review of the preliminary plans at the meetings brought out concerns for specific details of the project such as fire truck street access, separation distance between dwellings, the overall density of the development, parking, sidewalks, and so on. At each meeting the questions raised were addressed and agreed remedies augmented into the plan for its final approval.

Final approval was never brought to a vote. Today, one year later, copies of the plans languish in the drawers of the city officials. None of the parties involved in the creation of the project are motivated to start the shovels digging. It is certainly true that the current economic downturn has contributed to dampening the momentum. But the lack of motivation of the governing officials of the town has put the project on definite hold. We hope that the economy will improve and the town officials will have some new blood in the near future.

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Housing and Redevelopment Agencies + HUD/VASH = A Place to Live for Homeless Veterans



On July 14, 2011 it was announced that U.S. Housing and Urban Development is providing $46.2 million to public housing agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to supply permanent housing and case management for 6,790 homeless veterans in America. It was a low-key announcement. It is a modest investment, especially in the face of a housing problem that faces a growing number of our most devoted American citizens. The funding, from HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH) , is a coordinated effort by HUD, VA, and local housing agencies to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans. The HUD-VASH program includes rental assistance.

In the official Blog of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development a posting was made on February 22, 2011. It reads: Nearly 76,000 veterans were homeless on a given night in 2009 while about 136,000 vets spent at least one night in a shelter that year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). It is the first time that the federal agencies published an analysis of the extent of homelessness among veterans.

One success story of a non-profit project that created new apartments targeted for Homeless Veterans is Victory Village in Titusville, Florida, a twelve-unit permanent affordable rental housing cluster of three quadri-plexes occupied by homeless, disabled veterans.

Conceptual Design - July 2011

A larger project (32 apartments) is in the planning stages in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Named Cedar Grove, it is being created by Virginia Beach Community Development Corporation to serve homeless disabled veterans who earn under 40% of the area median income. Cedar Grove will be EarthCraft Certified, and universally designed with 16 fully-accessible units. A mix of one and two bedroom apartments will serve single Veterans or Veteran Families. A community room will be available for residents and support services will be provided to link residents to appropriate community resources.

The sketch included here is an early conceptual design for the 4-story building by architects GMF+ Associates, Virginia Beach, VA. The project is being financed by Virginia Housing and Development Authority from its non-competitive LIHTC disabled pool, designed to comply with the VHDA construction requirements for LIHTC – disabled housing and Earthcraft multi-family construction requirements.

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Specifying “affordability” in Traditional Neighborhood Design



Redevelopment planners are facing a new challenge for replacing deteriorated single-family houses with new homes that conform to Traditional Neighborhood Design standards, including that prospective buyers cannot qualify for the selling price of the new home. A sagging economic climate has made getting financing to purchase a new home increasing difficult for more and more prospective homeowners. The cost of construction has not dropped enough to make new homes more affordable. The result is many builders are unwilling to invest in new construction for urban in-fill properties.

Affordable Urban Plan

Sample affordable house plan

Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority recently took a proactive approach to meeting this challenge. It is based on the assumption that if it could offer to their single-family builders new TND house plan that was less expensive to build, the construction cost could come down to a selling price that would enable today’s homebuyer to qualify for its purchase. Willing builders would jump at the chance, right?

How do they find a satisfactory house plan that meets the design standards of traditional neighborhood design and costs less to build?

Here are ten ways to accomplish that objective:

1. Reduce square feet. A 3-bedroom house on a small lot can be as small as 1,200 SF without being too small to be comfortable. Neighborhood streetscape density can dictate the maximum space between houses and the appropriate house width. This considera-
tion along with minimum room widths can increase the minimum to around 1,300 SF.
2. Reduce room separation walls. Open kitchens to dining areas; living rooms and foyers; hallways and laundry space.
3. Reduce bathrooms. Historical house plans from the early 20th Century typically had one full bath for a whole house. Today we can design for a single full bath located in the hall convenient to all the bedrooms, with chambered areas for multiple use; a powder room on the first floor is sufficient unless there is a bedroom.
4. Reduce building offsets. Straight walls use less lumber to construct; long walls are more cost efficient that short walls; a square is the most efficient building shape.
5. Modest size bedrooms are okay. Give priority to large spaces in the open areas where the family gathers as a group. Historically speaking, house plans typically had small bedrooms, in Europe they still do.
6. Concentrate plumbing into one quadrant. Minimize the length and number of drainage and water lines.
7. Avoid unnecessary windows and doors. Design for window balance and proportions on the front profile as viewed from the street, other sides of the house can have one window per room.
8. Reduce the number of shingles on the roof. Keep roof slopes the minimum necessary to achieve historical architectural style; avoid dormers.
9. Minimize porches and details. TND architecture will certainly deal with a covered entry porch. Strive to keep it simple and locate it as close as allowed to the sidewalk.
10. Locate house with space on one side to park at least one car off the street. It is desirable to leave enough space to construct a detached garage at a later time.

NRHA sent out an RFP in July, 2011, to local architects and builders, to develop new house plans that would meet affordability parameters based upon a published preliminary plan that its in-house architects derived. The resulting construction plans would be published in its on-line HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY where pre-approved urban plans are displayed for purchase from the architects and designers who own the copyrights. It remains to be seen whether the plans will found “acceptable” by builders for speculative projects or their own marketing agenda. Dozens of ready-to-build urban plans can be purchased from on-line plans websites.

It is worth comment what other planning approaches may be available to spur house construction action toward affordable products in the urban setting. What is the likelihood of success with the NRHA plans it is developing?

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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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