Granny Flats and the Struggle to Build Additional Low-cost Housing

ADU“Granny Flats” or ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) inspire a lot of excited talk right now. These are small carriage houses built in the backs of homes on land that would traditionally be a garage or a yard. They can contribute to making a more walkable, healthy, and affordable city, but they’re having trouble getting off the ground in the U.S., even in cities that allegedly love them.

The reason for this is regulation: limitations around who can live in the home, aesthetic concerns or (and this is the most onerous and counterproductive one) parking. Growing cities that pay lip service to remaining affordable are unwilling to serve the citizens who aren’t drivers and this keeps them from continuing to attract young, talented people.

I’d like to add an aside here to mention The Rent is Too Damn High, the book that introduced me to the world of city planning and zoning. The short work makes many persuasive arguments, but the main one is that cities, particularly cities that have high employment and are very desirable to live in (think the Bay Area, New York or the book’s author’s home base of DC) are too expensive to live in because there aren’t enough places to live, and that the reason there aren’t enough places to live. This scarcity is  caused by bad regulations. Height limits, NIMBYism and, most of all, parking regulations, keep developers from building the kind of housing that would make cities more affordable. I find this argument compelling.  Once you know about the ways cities choke off growth, you begin to see them everywhere.

These additional dwellings have the inherent ecological benefit of shrinking private yards, eliminating parking and moving populations closer to population centers. They also have a social benefit of allowing families to live closer together, as they often serve as homes for aged parents or close friends, who in turn may help with childcare and upkeep.

For evidence of these benefits, look at Vancouver. This rapidly growing city has created low-cost housing in its most walkable and desirable neighborhoods. Other cities on the US side of the border have many more single-family houses and could quickly overtake them, if they had the will to do so.

Ironically, like the streetcar, ADUs have a certain cachet or hipness among people who wish to recreate the success of cities like Portland. But unlike streetcars, ADUs are small scale, reproducible and they aid walkability and density without risking big spending or boondoggles.

About Casey Brazeal

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