Accessory dwelling units aren’t just for your mother-in-law anymore.
In 2011, recently divorced real estate broker Beth Franklin bought a 1950s Cape in Falmouth. It’s a pricey part of the state, and her mortgage payments showed it. So she got permission from the town to convert her two-car garage into a two-bedroom apartment, which now she rents out. The extra income covers a third of her monthly mortgage payment and, in a few years, she’ll have made back the $100,000 she put into the unit.
Zoning wonks call them accessory dwelling units or ADUs; you might know them as granny flats or in-law apartments. In Maine, they’re generally defined as self-contained structures of up to 900 square feet, either attached to or very near an owner-occupied home. Beyond aiding homeowners with their mortgages, ADUs provide affordable rentals for folks who might otherwise be priced out of city and town centers, helping to alleviate sprawl. They’re also helping facilitate a national trend toward — really, back to — extended families cohabitating. According to a 2016 analysis by the Pew Research Center, 60.6 million Americans live in a household with two or more adult generations, up from 51.5 million in 2009.
Big on Little: ADU Pioneers
La La Land
After California reformed its permitting processes, design requirements, and other regulations, the number of ADU permits in Los Angeles jumped from 142 in 2016 to almost 2,000 last year.
Portland, Oregon, has loosened zoning regs and wavied building fees. Last year, more than one out of every 10 housing units built in Portland was an ADU, according to one UC Berkeley study.
More than a third of all single-family homes in Vancouver, British Columbia, accommodate legal ADUs, part of a citywide effort to combat astronomical real estate prices.
ADU evangelists like Kol Peterson, author of the new book Backdoor Revolution: The Definitive Guide to ADU Development, foresee a coming boom in ADUs in cities with a dearth of affordable housing. Such predictions could be relevant to Maine, where the market for vacation rentals makes year-round rentals scarce. Also of interest here — in the oldest state in the country by median age — is how ADUs can accommodate aging parents and allow seniors to transition to more accessible quarters on their own properties. Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, believes so much in the potential of ADUs to help seniors age in place, she’s convening a group of architects, code enforcement officers, and town planners to discuss how to get more Maine municipalities to allow the units.
Right now, only 23 do, according to GrowSmart Maine, an advocacy outfit focused on sustainable development. Director Nancy Smith calls ADUs “a tremendous way to build a community in a way that’s affordable for everybody.” But not everybody sees it that way. “There is a lot of ‘not in my backyard,’” says Maurer, citing concerns about noise, crowding, Airbnb-style turnover, and aesthetic changes in single-family neighborhoods. Of Maine’s ADU-friendly towns, some — like Cape Elizabeth and Lewiston — require that tenants be related to or have a personal relationship with the principal dwelling owner. Many forbid detached units altogether.
Such zoning hurdles might be troubling to companies like Portland-based modular firm BrightBuilt Home (see this month’s prefab feature), which launched plans in January for a 560- to 700-square-foot, wheelchair-accessible structure they’re billing as an “in-law flat and guest house.” But principal Phil Kaplan says the company has already received some 150 inquires about the prefab units, which start at $135,000, and he’s not sweating zoning obstacles. ADUs have momentum, Kaplan says. “It seems like things are going in our direction.”