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Accessory Dwelling Units can Help with a Shortage of Affordable Housing But Local Hurdles Remain

Cat Modlin-Jackson

With housing costs on the rise and incomes lagging behind, Virginians are getting creative in their search for affordable housing.

As property owners and renters look to get the most bang for their buck, some are finding more economical ways of living and working.

At around 9 every morning, Sonny Fleming kicks on his shop vac.

Before moving to Richmond with his wife, Ellen, he had a half-hour commute. Now? "It takes me about 30 seconds," Fleming says with a laugh.

That’s thanks to the two-story building in their backyard, where the contractor spends his days building skatepark ramps and movie props.   The first floor has all the trappings of a workshop. 

But tucked in the back is a staircase leading to the 800-square-foot space that Natalie Snider calls home. It’s three times the size of her old place, and it gives her plenty of room for her stuff… that includes a piano, a bar and a 20-pair collection of cowboy boots. 

At first she felt a little weird about living on someone else’s property. "Oh totally. We joke that I’m like the crazy old lady in the backyard," Snider says jokingly.

Snider and the Flemings have become good friends through the years, but the family still gives their tenant her space. And a grove in the backyard gives her extra privacy.  "It’s like living in a little treehouse," Natalie Snider says.

That’s one word for it. It’s also called an accessory dwelling unit.  That’s the technical term for in-law suites, basement apartments and the like.

ADUs can be mutually beneficial for tenants who want to keep their rent cheap, and for would-be landlords who want extra money to pay their mortgage. 

But don’t expect them to proliferate. They’re not cheap to build. And in many cities and counties, homeowners aren’t allowed to develop or rent out an ADU. 

Why? Zoning.

"Zoning has governed the entire built environment for who can live where," says Michelle Krocker, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.  She explains that rules vary by jurisdiction, but single-family units are generally the norm. One house, one yard.

Credit Virginia General Assembly
Delegate Ibraheem Samirah/(D) Herndon

That tradition needs to change, says Delegate Ibraheem Samirah. This year he proposed laws that would give homeowners statewide the right to turn single-family houses into duplexes and triplexes and build ADUs.   "It would become something that is of very practical use and would help alleviate a lot of our challenges with affordable housing," Samirah says.

About a third of households in Virginia spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, according to the Housing Virginia Sourcebook. Samirah says developing cheaper alternatives to single-family homes would leave residents with more money for food, transportation and other necessities.

But Krocker says there are real concerns about the growing pains that could ensue. "There’s a fear that it will impact the infrastructure in a community. Schools, roads, parking will become more crowded."

For now, it’s a moot point. Both of Samirah’s bills died in a House subcommittee. He says that’s due to a lack of information.  "Localities have been failing at resolving the affordable housing crisis and legislators have not yet fully understood that."

His opponents say the legislation wouldn’t give localities any newland use authority.  Instead, they say the bills would have forced statewide changes in zoning regulations without input from the local community.

Back at her treehouse apartment above the Flemings’ shop, Natalie Snider says she’s disappointed the ADU bill failed because she wants others to benefit from living arrangements like hers.

And if Ellen Fleming has her way, that’s a forever kind of lifestyle.   "I told Natalie she’s not allowed to leave. She has to stay here and grow old with me."

That gives them plenty of time to see what happens for the next generation of residents in the Commonwealth.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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