Vantage Point: Approaches to Meeting Housing Needs

Maybe An ADU

This is bigger than some “tiny houses”, but lacks basic amenities like heat. (But the Wi-Fi is great!)

We are in a housing crunch. It isn’t necessarily that there are not enough living spaces for the number of people needing them, but that there is not enough affordable housing stock. “Affordable” varies by location, based upon cost of living and wages earned. Some people are chronically ill-equipped to afford shelter for a variety of reasons, often related to mental health. But far more suffer from drastic financial setbacks due to illness or other unexpected expenses, or loss of income due to downsizing or workplace closures (Covid-19 hasn’t helped). An uptick in landlords wanting to sell or re-develop their buildings means evictions from (mostly urban) rented apartments and houses, but tenants may not find comparable affordable housing in the area, near work or schools. The number of working people living in their cars and shelters in my part of the country—especially in the aftermath of devastating storms—is astoundingly depressing.

Municipalities are experimenting with a range of solutions. Philadelphia disbanded a homeless settlement with promises of shelter in houses on which the City had foreclosed for back taxes. Ideally this resolves two problems at once: homelessness and long-vacant buildings subject to vandalism. The downfall has been that many foreclosed houses need work before they are habitable. Delays in the City’s contracts for basic heat, water, electric, and sewer repairs translate to ongoing homelessness.

Around the country, villages of “tiny houses” (400 square feet or less) help fill the need for shelter (returning some sense of dignity to the inhabitants), but may require communal use of showers, bathrooms, and kitchens. These differ from the voluntarily built individual tiny houses popping up for those wanting to simplify their lives: Elon Musk is probably the most famous such occupant.

One long-time approach to meeting housing needs is accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. These can be additions to existing structures or stand-alone units comprising a second home on a single lot. US history of ADUs goes back to the early 20th century (think “granny flats”), with growth of ADU stock after World War II mirroring increasing demand for single family housing. Some communities have a long-standing supply of ADUs that became illegal when single-family zoning came around. Apartments for aging parents or extended families in converted garages sometimes have limited amnesty from zoning, but others are required to be emptied of paying tenants within a grace period.

Zoning represents a local “police power” over land use, something less than confiscatory rights of condemnation but more than allowing property owners free rein to use their properties any way they choose. The purpose of zoning codes is to divide a municipality or county into areas designated for different purposes (residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, etc.). This is meant to “protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the public,” maintaining the character of neighborhoods while allowing for orderly development, including providing for adequate public infrastructure. But sometimes zoning results in less equitable housing availability.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published a study of ADUs across the country in 2008, describing some of their history and suggesting updates to current ADU ordinances to suit local characteristics while increasing safe, affordable housing stock. The study does not mention the 1985 Mount Laurel, NJ decision that people should be able to afford to live where they work, a legal imperative affecting the entire nation that has not been enforced.

Both Minneapolis, Minnesota (2018) and Portland, Oregon (2020) famously ditched single-family zoning requirements to overcome housing shortages, allowing multiple families and units on single lots. Where ADUs are illegal, code enforcement inspectors are sometimes painfully aware that they are making tenants homeless when compelling eviction. But even where there are allowances, things can be complicated.

A second residential use on a lot, especially as a separate building, might violate current setback lines and parking requirements. Aside from revamping zoning codes to allow them, ADUs require neighbors’ approval. Will they protest a century-old, pre-code garage five feet from the common property line turning into an apartment? An interior ADU might be more acceptable.

An ADU cannot be bought or sold separately. It is part of the same property as the main home, whether a basement apartment or a separate backyard building. This situation can be remedied by creating condominium ownership of the entire property, with shared common areas and two (or more) separately owned living spaces. The name is 20th century, but condominiums are not new: shared ownership and maintenance of buildings has been common in Europe for centuries. The first US variant arrived in New York City in 1881 (in the now-demolished Rembrandt Building). The first US legislation passed in Puerto Rico in 1902 (modified in 1958 and regarded a model for elsewhere in the nation).

Whatever the approach, we should be aware of these variations to help clients—and our communities—address housing possibilities.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM, CFS

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.