A garage-to-accessory dwelling unit conversion in Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon)
Whether carriage houses, in-law suites, English basements or granny flats, what all accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have in common – the reason their backers love them and why few folks think of them as a possible solution to the housing crisis – is that they blend in with the neighborhood.
A bill patroned by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, this year would have expanded permission to build such supplemental housing across the commonwealth, but the proposal was killed on a party-line vote in a Republican-controlled House subcommittee last month. If ADUs are as unobtrusive as their supporters say, then why won’t Virginia legislators make it easier to build them?
An ADU for who?
As defined according to Hudson’s HB 2100, an ADU is “an independent dwelling unit on a single-family dwelling lot with its own living, bathroom and kitchen space. An ADU may be within or attached to a single-family dwelling or in a detached structure on a lot containing a single-family dwelling.” In short, no matter what form it takes, adding an ADU to a single-family parcel enables two households to live on a lot that would otherwise be home to just one.
Doubling housing density without significantly altering the neighborhood character can prove especially appealing in cities like Charlottesville, where demand is plentiful and vacant lots are not. As retirees, tech professionals and folks affiliated with the University of Virginia have poured into town over the last few decades, the housing supply has remained stagnant.
Unable to find a place to call home in Charlottesville, ever more people who work in the city are forced to live further out, causing congestion and long commutes. With an abundance of garages, barns and carriage houses in the region, relatively quick upgrades to ADUs could yield big results for Hudson’s district.
“If you’re looking for ways to put more missing middle housing into really hot housing markets like ours, ADUs can be a great option,” she said. “Sometimes folks build them to have a rental income stream, to age in place, to help someone recovering from an injury or illness, or to house multiple generations on the same property.”
If it had passed, Hudson’s proposal would have set consistent standards for ADUs across the commonwealth on everything from setbacks to owner occupancy requirements, ending the current patchwork of rules and regulations that often make ADUs technically legal but practically unfeasible.
While critics often decry the Dillon Rule for hindering localities’ ability to tailor public policy to their needs, in this instance Hudson hoped to use its power to streamline ADUs standards and make it easier to build the additional housing her constituents require.
“This is an example where local authority is sometimes used to stop homeowners and businesses from constructing ADUs which are good for their bottom line as well as our housing supply,” she said. “These are units that the building industry would love to be able to build for homeowners if the regulations would get out of the way of the people who want them.”
Localities lean no
Nothing is currently stopping localities in Virginia from streamlining ADU standards and adopting a more permissive approach to supplemental dwellings. In light of such existing authority, many of the commonwealth’s cities and counties viewed Hudson’s bill as a state-level overstep that would diminish their discretion over land use rules and regulations. That’s why Joe Lerch, director of local government policy for the Virginia Association of Counties, opposed the proposal.
“Many counties exercise their authority to allow for the inclusion of ADUs within their zoning ordinances,” Lerch wrote in an email. “In doing so, they determine the context of where ADUs can be reasonably accommodated to meet the needs of residents and homeowners. A one-size-fits-all mandate to authorize an ADU wherever a single-family dwelling exists excludes input from citizens and communities on how ADUs can fit within existing and proposed residential developments.”
Other groups, like the Coalition for Smarter Growth, support ADUs in principle but had concerns that a statewide override of localities’ permitting processes could inadvertently cause more sprawl.
“It’s important that affordable places to live are located closer to existing services, public transit and jobs,” said Stewart Schwartz, the Coalition’s executive director. “More and more people who live farther out choke our transportation systems with car drivers, and that means a greater loss of farms and forests as well as more greenhouse gas emissions. There is an awful lot of demand to live in walkable, urban neighborhoods, but often there aren’t any options. ADUs are a good option.”
Given more time and stronger stakeholder engagement, such concerns may have easily been assuaged. The vast majority of suburban sprawl comes from the expansion of single-family home subdivisions, not the infill construction which typifies ADUs.
“Based on the work that I have done I think I would be aware of a lot of new greenfield ADUs being built, but I just haven’t heard of that happening,” said Emily Hamilton, a researcher with the Mercatus Institute, an economic markets research center at George Mason University. “For ADUs to lead to more sprawl than the status quo they would have to be changing developers’ calculations on subdivisions, and that seems highly unlikely to me.”
“Not nearly enough housing”
In response to the opposition, Hudson ultimately proposed a substitute version of HB 2100 that watered down the bill to include no requirements on localities. Instead, the proposal would have formed a state-level advisory panel to merely offer guidance on how to encourage the development of ADUs across the commonwealth.
Even in California, where a slew of bills have made it easier for homeowners to build tens of thousands of new ADUs in recent years, attic apartments and carriage houses are not significant solutions to the housing crisis.
“It’s not nearly enough housing to meet the need,” explained Hamilton. “ADUs are simply a smart first step that give homeowners more rights to put their homes to a slightly more marginally intensive use when it makes sense to them.”
Hudson had hoped that her calls to reduce regulations on homeowners and builders might garner her ADU bill bipartisan support, especially given Gov. Youngkin’s recent remarks railing against localities’ exclusionary land use rules.
“Bills like this are a direct response to the governor’s call for some cross-partisan work on housing affordability,” Hudson said. “Anybody who is listening to Virginians knows that cost of living tops the list of things keeping people up at night, and housing is the biggest slice of anybody’s paycheck. This is a very practical thing we can do to put more units on properties where the owners want them.”
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