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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2 Responses to “Why OUTLAW In-law Apartments? ….arguments for legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units”

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  1. Geri says:

    Great article. Here is an article on Forbes about the same topic. I believe this is a great alternative for seniors. They don’t want to give up their homes and or independence.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/09/13/how-can-we-keep-seniors-in-their-homes-as-long-as-possible/?commentId=comment_blogAndPostId/blog/comment/2395-3229-783

  2. Martin says:

    Wow, those Virginia beach guidelines are a bear. They clearly discourage accessory dwelling units even while they provide lip service to their potential benefits.

    I think “potential” is the main word to use when it comes to ADUs. Both pro- and anti-ADU voices have been repeating the same list of potential beneficial and/or harmful consequences for decades — that ADUs are great housing for the elderly, that they will cause parking problems, etc. But since legal ADUs are incredibly rare, there is basically zero statistical data with which to evaluate those arguments. Anecdotal evidence supports the pro-ADU side, mostly, but policy should be based on more than anecdote.

    Some research is starting to come out that should put a few of those claims in perspective.

    In the meantime, what governments should realize is that their rules don’t change the impulse to build ADUs. The potential personal benefits — in terms of keeping family together, creating extra income through rent, etc — are strong enough people will do it without permits. Then you’re left with (frequently) substandard or unsafe dwellings, with no addition to the tax base.

    I’d prefer to see legal, safe ADUs. My perception of the financing potential (you say, “When accessory dwellings are allowed in the community, homeowners can generally qualify for home improvement loans to finance the construction or remodel”) isn’t as rosy as yours, I’m afraid. Financing is as much of a hurdle as zoning. But you can read about that on my site. 🙂

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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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