Why granny flats rock, but may not be legal

Matthew Grocoff

September 3, 2014

By: Matthew Grocoff, Green Renovation Expert

In: General Remodeling

Many urban areas are struggling to stay affordable enough for young families to buy into or even for many people to rent. Around the world people are moving to cities for easy access to work and play, walkability and biking, and diversity and culture. Developers are racing to build taller and denser buildings. But these buildings often kill the soul of a city street and don't provide the same social benefits typical of older urban neighborhoods.

The newest solution is turning back to an old idea. Before the 1940s and 50s many urban homeowners rented out "granny flats" to supplement their income and pay down their mortgages. Also called multigenerational homes, laneway houses, or in-law units, these structures are small apartments built on the property, often above a garage or other building. Now called by their bureaucratic term "Accessory Dwelling Units," or ADUs, these spaces are often restricted by local zoning ordinances. In most cities, it is illegal for a homeowner to rent a guesthouse or apartment on their own property.

But the tide is turning. Seeing the extraordinary benefits of compact, affordable urban living and the ability to create income generating properties, many cities are changing their ordinances to not only allow, but also encourage ADUs.

The City of Santa Cruz, CA is hoping to keep their seaside town affordable for teachers, police officers, and other service workers. To address this challenge they created an ADU development program to encourage residents to create separate residences by converting all or part of a garage or by building new structures on the homeowner's property. This is creating more housing opportunities by making it easier for homeowners to build ADUs. The homeowners get an additional revenue stream and the renters get affordable housing in the best neighborhoods.

Santa Cruz worked with a team of seven architects to design compact building prototypes to address a variety of site needs. According to the City, these plans have been reviewed by city departments and it helps the homeowners by reducing processing time, planning fees, and design costs.

Here's some of the many benefits of ADUs:

  • They allow homeowners generate supplemental income
  • They create multi-generational living and independent housing for aging parents
  • They create hidden density in the city without the need for mega-complexes
  • They contribute income to the local economy
  • They create a more social environment in the community
  • They reduce traffic congestion by allowing more people to live near where they work
  • They provide flexibility and long term revenue

ADUs are clearly making a comeback. As more communities understand their exceptional value you may see one in your backyard soon.

Check out this video the State of Oregon is using to promote ADUs: http://accessorydwellings.org/video-introduction/

Also, check out http://accessorydwellings.org/adu-regulations-by-city/ to see what the regulations are in your city. If they don't allow ADUs, talk with your local council member and see what it would take to change the law.

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