Yes, IN My Backyard

How Accessory Dwelling Units & Granny Flats can help solve the Housing Crisis

An ADU in Portland, Oregon. Source: dwell

Sugar-coating is fantastic. As with anything that has potentially significant impacts when overused, though, there’s a time and a place for it. Hot churro coming out of the deep fryer? You bet. Sugar coat it. The greatest problems we face as a nation today? Not so much.

We’re in the middle of an extreme housing crisis that has only gotten worse since the Pandemic began. Problems of affordability, equity and overcrowding (a direct effect of too-expensive housing) have been exacerbated via job loss, tax revenue shortfalls and re-allocation of capital. In a country where nearly 11 million households (1/4 of all renters) spent more than half of their pre-tax income on housing before the Pandemic, $2,600 in stimulus payments after a year of existential precarity is frankly a slap in the face. For the nearly half of all rental households who pay more than 30% of their income towards housing (which formally qualifies them as being rent burdened), we can no longer sugar-coat just how bad it’s gotten for so many. We can’t continue an inhumane neglect of the lived reality of our neighbors. Nor can we hope to improve the status quo by suggesting ideas that are either unattainable or implausible today. We need to get serious about how we solve these problems.

While it’s incontestable that the only cure to a housing crisis is more housing, there’s quite a bit of disagreement as to how the country should build more of it. Ideas range from proposing skyscrapers on every plot of land (if the market allows it) to building housing *gestures vaguely* somewhere else. Anger and anxiety have erupted in this battle, bifurcating debates of housing along the sectarian lines of YIMBYs & NIMBYs (Yes, or No In My Backyard). At base level, YIMBYs support more housing in towns and cities, while NIMBYs are opposed to more housing in their communities. Reasons include concerns of increased traffic, historic preservation, pace of life and a host of others that can be grouped into what’s become known as “neighborhood character.”

Regardless of where one pledges their allegiance, it’s both important and necessary to hear the concerns of people on the other side of the issue, much as this may hurt one to admit. We can’t hope to solve a crisis of this magnitude without a plurality of stakeholders. For YIMBYs (whom I count myself a part of) we must understand that it’s reasonable for someone living in an exclusively low rise neighborhood to not want a 10 story building developed right next to them. On the other side of the trench, NIMBYs must also understand that just because one’s block is comprised of single family homes, as 67% of America is, it doesn’t mean one can shirk their responsibility in alleviating this crisis. An olive branch needs be extended across our backyards to reach some compromise, or else matters will deteriorate further.

In the spirit of this, I’m proposing that accessory dwelling units be legalized on every residential plot of land in America. As I hope you’ll see, this is not a radical proposal to fundamentally alter the composition of existing neighborhoods. In fact, this plan would accentuate their underlying strengths while offering the opportunity for more people to take part in, and contribute to, what makes these places so attractive to their existing residents.

An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is any additional dwelling attached to, or on the same grounds as, a single family home. Think of a basement apartment, the second floor of a garage, or a newly built detached structure in the backyard. For self-explanatory reasons, sometimes these are called granny-flats or in-law units. The benefits of ADUs are many and varied, including, but not limited to:

  • Allow family members to live near each other multi-generationally, yet still retain autonomy. This could be an elderly parent, a recent graduate entering the workforce, or empty nesters who are looking to downsize, but not move
  • Generate an extra source of income for homeowners
  • Increase tax revenue for municipalities
  • Quicker construction times than traditional homes
  • More inexpensive build out than traditional homes
  • Affordable rent for tenants who take advantage of the smaller and more flexible living accommodations than traditional options
  • Maximize underutilized space
  • Reduce environmental footprint via less-intensive infill development
  • Increase safety with “eyes-on the street” in formerly disused places, like alleyways
  • Increase vibrancy in communities with more residents across the age spectrum
  • Encourage innovative and creative design through lowered risk basis
  • Iterative growth that doesn’t overwhelm communities
  • Housing. More housing
Alleyway ADU in Toronto. Source: Contemporist

Before World War II, ADUs were a fairly common and innocuous feature of our built environment. As with most common-sense planning elements however, ADUs were disposed of by midcentury planners, and prohibited by law in the booming suburbs that sprouted up around the country. As growth expanded and codes were copied, this pattern stuck with our towns and cities, rendering ADU development illegal in most places today. With these prohibitions, we lost a critical form of naturally occurring affordable housing. To deepen this injury, much of the country also lost the ability to view neighbors in different kinds of housing in favorable, non-threatening ways. The exclusion of any type of housing other than the single family home, even the humble backyard cottage for Grandma, has worked the past several generations to embed in our psyche the belief that no other housing should be permitted other than single family homes. This flies in the face of centuries of precedent.

It’s irresponsible to adhere to regulations created in a narrow timeline before much of the world had access to color television, and after the most destructive war in human history. It’s a profound indictment on our society that we’ve continued with these regulations in the midst of a crisis that will only get worse without action. Nationally, it’s been estimated that there’s a shortage of 2.5 million-3.3 million housing units today. This doesn’t account for future growth needs, or the more than 10 million housing units which will require renovation over the next 10 years. Rent is only going to get more expensive, apartments will only get more crowded, and homelessness will only rise. We cannot wish all of this away.

Ubiquitous legalization of ADUs is an actionable and achievable plan that can put a real dent into this crisis. Zillow has found that if just 10% of single family lots in the 17 largest metro areas allow for a second unit to be built as of right, 3.3 million new homes could be created, equal to the higher end estimate of the national housing shortage. If there’s a rapid way to build inexpensive housing that’s waiting to be unlocked, why aren’t we unlocking it everywhere?

ADU tucked behind a single family home in Los Angeles. Source: Bunch ADU

If you’ll allow me to respond to some of the prevailing arguments against more housing in a given neighborhood, I hope to prove the compromise I set out to forge at the beginning of the article. We must hear and alleviate concerns of new housing if we’re going to build more of it, without opposition holding up its development.

Fear and assuagement:

ADUs will destroy my neighborhood’s character

Response: ADUs are not visible from the street. The fundamental character of neighborhoods would be unaltered, and concerns of historic preservation, scale or massing, satisfied. You might even find yourself liking their quirky charms and innovative design.

ADUs will bring more traffic to my neighborhood

Response: ADU residents on average own less than half the amount of cars of a typical household. If you’re fine with a new home being built on your block, you should be fine with two ADUs.

More people will increase crime in my neighborhood

Response: Allowing for more housing in neighborhoods creates more vibrancy and eyes on the street, which can help to foster neighborhood security.

More housing units will reduce the value of my home

Response: The extra income generated from an ADU increases the value of a home. If the unit is not rented, and instead occupied by a family member, the more livable square footage there is on a property, the higher the value of the property will be.

More development will have harm the environment

Response: As ADUs are either located within an existing home, or in a small structure in the backyard, no more environmental damage will be done than has already been caused with the development of the existing home. ADUs can stem environmental degradation by promoting denser housing in already built-up areas, instead of extending outwards on untouched natural lands.

ADUs will gentrify my neighborhood and lead to displacement

Response: More housing units reduces the rental burden on members of a community. Homeowners can generate additional income that can ease increasing tax assessments and allow them to remain in their neighborhoods.

An ADU ordinance would force me to build something I don’t want to

Response: An ADU ordinance would only allow those who want to build an additional unit to do so, not force anyone to build who doesn’t want to. Instead of wading through years of variances and permits to build an apartment for an elderly parent, this ordinance would merely allow for their efficient development.

Charming row of single family homes in Portland, Oregon. Unbeknownst to us, each might have an ADU!

Cities and States are moving towards allowing ADUs as of right, regardless of a property’s underlying zoning classification. Recent wins have occurred across North America, from California to Minneapolis, and Princeton to Edmonton. These are important legislative changes, but we have to keep moving forward until these measures are adopted in communities across the country. ADU development in Oregon does very little for someone struggling to pay rent in New York. If we want to spread the message of providing abundant, affordable and respectable housing for all, we must take the YIMBY acronym literally. Yes, housing in our backyards. Or in our basements and garages, but ‘Yes In My Basement’ doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well.

Ultimately, we will need to rethink our broader development patterns beyond ADUs. Given the pressing nature of this crisis, however, we have to build what we can, where we can. Allowing for more mixed-use, walkable development, reducing (or eliminating) parking minimums and streamlining permits are just a few things we can work towards to build off of this success. I’m hopeful in that bridging the divide between YIMBYs and NIMBYs on the low-hanging fruit of ADU development, we will be able to come together on more issues to improve the station of cities, rejecting the gridlock that has ensnared us for too long. The key to future housing wins is to stop thinking of this crisis as a battle in a zero sum war. No, it’s about moving towards creating more affordable, more respectable, and more equitable communities that will allow for more people to experience the places so many of us cherish today.

Through reconciling the dire need to solve our housing crisis without alienating those who are in positions to oppose the much needed reforms, we must embrace the mantra of Yes, IN My Backyard, and legalize the development of ADUs everywhere.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

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