Ask a sampling of ADU proponents why they support them, and you’ll get a range of answers. Quite a few will say that a North American-wide housing crisis demands we build as many units as we can. Others will say that we must add density to our communities and cities as part of a comprehensive strategy to address climate change. For many, the reasons are more personal. Family members need an affordable and close-by place to live. The additional rental income will help provide financial stability to a young family or empty-nester. After growing old in a neighborhood they’ve come to love, they can’t imagine leaving but also don’t need to – and often can’t – keep up the large space they’ve lived in.
The reasons to support ADUs are many and varied. Unsurprisingly, a diverse and growing list of governments, organizations and professional associations have made support of ADUs and opposition to zoning barriers that prevent them, an official commitment. These include the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Obama Administration, the Conservative think tank R Street, the Province of Ontario, the state of California, Wake County, the Sierra Club, Habitat for Humanity, the American Association of Landscape Architects, the American Planning Association, the American Institute of Architects and many more local and regional interests. In Raleigh, those include the Triangle Community Coalition, Congregations for Social Justice and the North Carolina Housing Coalition.
These organizations, and locally-based ADU proponents across the country, rely on a growing body of evidence that this diminutive housing option is a valuable tool in shaping a more sustainable, equitable, and healthy future. Of course, not all are convinced. Raleigh City Council has been considering, on and off for seven years, whether to permit ADUs in our city. Unfortunately, impasse remains, as the most recent City Council proposal – a proposal ADU advocates consider a poison pill that will effectively continue the ban on ADUs – is headed for uncertainty after the Planning Commission just recommended its denial. At a recent meeting of the Commission’s committee on zoning text amendments, one commissioner, an ADU proponent, called on his fellow commissioners – and us – to look at ADUs as an opportunity to do something good for our city, rather than a threat to regulate. Let’s do that here.
ADUs and the Affordable Raleigh
We picture a city where housing is affordable and available for everyone who needs a place to live. Absent from the ADU discussion at the Raleigh City Council table is the fact that renters, who represent half of the city’s population, are struggling to get by. Forty-two percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent – the federal government’s definition of “rent-burdened.” Worse, nearly one in five Raleigh renters pays half of their income in rent. We see this housing crisis and respond by saying that we need all the units we can build – ADUs included.
ADUs cannot be considered capital-A Affordable Housing. That is, we cannot require through regulation that ADUs remain available at discounted rents, as is the case with the stock of Section 8, tax credit-financed and publicly-owned housing units. However, we know from the experience of other cities and our own that ADUs are affordable in a few ways. In Portland, Oregon, for example, 18 percent of ADU tenants pay little to nothing for a place to live. We also know that ADUs are voluntarily affordable, that is, they are routinely rented at less than market rate. In the expensive Bay Area, 58 percent of ADUs rent for below-market rent. In Edmonton, Alberta, 25% of ADUs rent for 70% or less than market rate for a similar sized apartment. A recent Nextdoor listing for a “carriage-house” apartment in Oakwood puts the going rate on ADUs in one of Raleigh’s most exclusive Downtown neighborhoods at $775– the average rent in a Downtown apartment is now $1,444.
Given what we know about the affordability levels of ADUs, we should consider them a part of a comprehensive affordable housing strategy. ADUs cost between $70,000 and $150,000 to construct, at no cost to the taxpayer. In comparison, the city will spend $241,000 per unit on the Sir Walter Apartments and $188,000 per unit at the Beacon Ridge development off Rock Quarry Road. Even if an ADU rents for at or above market rate, it still has added to the housing supply and thus helped in a small way to ease upward pressure on housing prices overall.
ADUs and the Sustainable Raleigh
ADUs are among the most resource-efficient housing options available and are thus a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. First, we know that buildings account for forty percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Concrete and steel, used heavily in many apartment developments and their parking structures, are the main culprits (concrete alone accounts for five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions). On the other hand, ADUs are made almost exclusively of renewable, biodegradable and energy-efficient timber. As we build more units to accommodate a growing population and ease the housing crisis, let’s take into account their impact on our environment.
Next, and somewhat obviously, ADUs consume less energy simply by the fact that they are smaller. ADUs average 700 square feet in Portland. In Raleigh, they would be capped at 800 square feet. Study after study shows that smaller living spaces consume far less energy than larger homes. Demand for smaller spaces is increasing. Let’s meet that demand and help the environment in the process.
ADUs also represent an opportunity to change the auto-dependent character of all of our neighborhoods, and in doing so, dramatically reduce our energy consumption. We know that denser development leads to decreased reliance on vehicles and fuels for transportation. Other cities are heeding the call. In Portland, Oregon, there are 30 percent fewer cars for ADUs than for typical rental units. Recognizing this benefit, cities like San Francisco and Durham (which is not as dense as Raleigh) do not require parking for ADUs. Seattle, which recently completed an Environmental Impact Statement that studies the effects of removing regulatory barriers to ADUs, tells us that even under a dramatic ADU building boom, neighborhood streets would not come close to reaching parking capacity. Raleigh’s own Transportation Planning office promoted an ADU ordinance in 2017 that included no parking requirement.
ADUs also support transit and cycling, two areas where Raleigh and Wake County have made big investments. Research tells us that the threshold to support transit systems like our future BRT network is about 10 units per acre. The vast swaths of R-4 and R-6 zoning districts inside and outside the beltline, particularly those traversed by the future BRT and high-frequency bus routes, are not dense enough to support our transit investment. ADUs would not push those neighborhoods beyond 10 units per acre, but they should be part of a comprehensive transit-oriented development policy framework. Similarly, our investments in bicycle lanes, bike share and now our interest in motorized scooters, are proving that Raleigh residents are beginning to depend less on cars. Let’s build ADUs to support our move away from auto dependency.
ADU’s and the Local Economy
From supporting local industries to broadening the tax base and expanding opportunity for disadvantaged children, we know that ADUs are a smart and equitable economic development tool.
Picture the first few years of a pro-ADU Raleigh. Let’s imagine we see a modest 100 ADUs constructed in Raleigh backyards. We can assume that more than 80 of those homes would be built by local contractors, small shops owned and operated by the middle class. In addition, 40 of them would be designed by local architects. Sixty-four of those ADUs would be developed by those living in the property’s main house – most of them middle class. ADUs are an opportunity to share the development spoils of growth among a broader section of our population and to support our local building trades industry.
For a downtown Raleigh service worker to live close enough to work that they could walk and not be considered rent-burdened by the federal government, they’d need to earn $57,000 per year. The solution is a comprehensive housing strategy that includes ADUs. Ontario gets it. The province, which now requires that its towns and cities allow them outright, cites that ADUs “create mixed-income communities, which support local businesses and local labor markets.” Service workers – those who prepare our coffees, cut our hair, care for our children and perform countless other tasks, are the bedrock of our thriving city. Let’s invite them to be our neighbors.
Another benefit of the mixed-income communities that ADUs help to promote is that they expand opportunity for working class children. Rather than building such communities, cities across the country, Raleigh included, are seeing increasing income segregation. Allowing ADUs and implementing policies to insure that they are truly affordable for the working class will help us become a more inclusive Raleigh.
ADUs and a healthier Raleigh
By now it’s well-known that auto-dependent land use policies are bad for our physical, cognitive, and mental health. Raleigh’s Comprehensive and Strategic Plans call for more walkable communities. ADUs are an opportunity to add the density to our established neighborhoods that is a prerequisite to walkability.
Of increasing concern as the large Baby Boomer population retires and requires more health care assistance will be the cost of elder care. For this reason, the AARP has supported ADUs as an aging-in-place strategy that keeps seniors in their communities and close to loved ones and caregivers.
Implementing the ADU city
We’ve imagined a city where ADUs help to make us a more prosperous, sustainable, healthier, and housing-secure city. But simply allowing ADUs will not get us there. One benefit of our local inaction on ADUs is that we have a wealth of information on policies and regulations other cities are using to encourage ADUs while making sure their benefits are maximized.
Primarily, ADUs should be allowed outright on all city properties. City Council’s overlay proposal, according to our very own Planning Commission, is onerous, and potentially unimplementable. Only by allowing them outright, with reasonable setback and height standards in line with other cities will we capitalize on the benefits ADUs can provide.
However, simply allowing them will not produce the number of ADUs that we will need. Rather, we should create policies to make them more affordable for middle-class developers to build, and to guarantee that they are affordable for the working and middle class. Strategies could include an elimination of building permit fees for ADUs, a strategy employed in Portland, Austin. Portland’s fee waiver does not extend to ADUs that intended to be used as short-term rentals, while Austin’s program requires that units be affordable up to 80 percent of the area median income. Los Angeles has a program that assists lower-income homeowners who want to build ADUs with financing and management assistance – in exchange for increased Section 8 housing stock. Durham is considering a proposal to connect homeowners with loans to construct ADUs. The private sector is also innovating to make ADUs easier to build. Portland-based Dweller, builds and installs prefabricated ADUs in a backyard, at no cost to the property owner. The company then shares the rental income generated from the ADU with the property owner, offering an ADU option to interested property owners who may otherwise not have the funds to construct one on their own.
Of course, ADUs are not a panacea. We understand that ADUs are but a piece of a multi-pronged strategy to create a more equitable, sustainable and healthy built environment. Just as we need ADUs, we will have to build more apartments and duplexes. We’ll need new parks, community facilities and commercial areas to support increased density. We’ll need new financial tools to ensure that development is equitable. Our infrastructure will need addressing, and so we’ll have to innovate our transportation, water and utility systems. Cities are complex and it’s not helpful to think about ADUs in a vacuum. But we can’t imagine a future Raleigh without them.