Affordable Housing Solutions: ADUs

Almost every city in America right now is pushing to create more affordable housing. Rightly so, too, as the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the for every 100 extremely low income renter households across the country there are only 35 affordable and available rental homes. That adds up to a shortage of 7.2 million rental homes that are affordable and available to extremely low income renters. The National Low Income Housing Coalition defines extremely low income renters as those with incomes at or below the poverty level or 30 percent of the area median income.

One solution to the affordable housing crisis that has gained traction in some major cities recently is the idea of installing accessory dwelling units (ADUs). ADUs are small apartments or houses that are typically built in the backyard of a single family house, or are the result of a garage converted to an apartment. The beauty of the ADU is that they can provide additional housing in areas that are zoned for single-family housing. This is a sneaky way to increase the density of the area without rezoning it or demolishing single-family units and building new multi-family apartments. Cities that have large swaths of neighborhoods dominated by single family housing, such Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco have been some of the early adopters of ADU policies.

San Francisco passed a local ordinance in 2014 that legalized building one ADU per residential lot. After a successful pilot program that helped streamline the construction of new ADUs the program became citywide and eventually, statewide. One of the noted benefits of the ADU program in San Francisco was the low cost to construct, typically less than $150,000, and the subsequent low cost of rent in the units.

Portland, Oregon has taken a different approach to ADUs in the city. Portland has long struggled with a large homeless population and a lack of affordable housing. A 2017 survey found that over 4,000 people were sleeping in the streets of Portland, but the true number is estimated to be higher due to difficulties of surveying. Portland rolled out a unique policy in 2017 that offered to pay for the construction of an ADU in the backyard of Portland homeowners at no cost to the homeowner. In exchange, the homeowners would allow a homeless fmialy to live in the ADU for five years, after which point the ADU would belong fully to the homeowner, no strings attached. The policy launched in 2018, and similar programs are being tested in Seattle and Los Angeles, two other West Coast cities that are in dire need of additional affordable housing units.

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