ADUs and granny flats more popular in some parts of the country and not others

Cities like Portland and Los Angeles may be interested in promoting accessory dwelling units (ADUs) but there is less interest in other parts of the United States:

The future for ADUs on the East Coast and in the Sun Belt is less clear. In older cities such as Boston and New York, much of the housing stock was built before World War II and is more dense than postwar suburban neighborhoods. Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix were developed more recently, but housing prices, for the most part, have not reached the peaks seen on the West Coast.

“If you grew up in New York City or Boston, you have a different acceptance for density, rather than in the West, where open space has always been prized,” Chapple said. “It has been really hard to retrofit these cities that were built at a later time.”

In the District of Columbia, it’s common to find ADUs in the form of finished basements under older townhouses. Suburbs such as Montgomery County, Maryland, offer a better opportunity for detached accessory dwellings. Before 2013, Montgomery homeowners had to endure a complex process of reviews that took several months. Five years ago, the rules were relaxed to allow for licensing in about 90 to 110 days. The measure drew controversy because of concerns about parking, trash and crowding of neighborhood schools.

Dan Reed, an urban planner and Montgomery resident since 1991, said that the measure has proved popular and that the county might be primed to ease regulation further.

The first factor for ADUs seems to be the price of housing. In areas where prices are relatively high, much of the West Coast, ADUs are viewed as good ways to promote cheaper housing.

The second factor seems to be density of properties. Smaller lots mean less space for ADUs as well as ADUs likely being closer to other housing.

A third factor is regulation. How easy is it for a homeowner or landowner to create an ADU on their property?

I wonder if there are some other possible factors at play that could help explain regional differences. Are all people everywhere willing to have others live on their property (or does financial need overrule this)? Could suburbanites view ADUs as a threat to property values? Are there certain architectural styles that lend themselves to ADUs? Does the presence of alleys help or hinder the development of ADUs? Do some places have a longer history of ADU use (such as through multiple generations living on a property or the presence of servants)?

Can proposed legislation on housing prompt a public discussion?

A new bill proposed in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren attempts to address housing issues:

It aims to lower the cost of developing housing so landlords don’t have to make rents so high, coming at the issue from two different angles. From one end, it tries to increase the supply of affordable housing by pouring billions of federal dollars into programs that subsidize developments in rural, low-income, and middle-income communities.

From the other end, the bill attempts to strip away the zoning laws that made developing housing so expensive in the first place. Many of these zoning laws limit low-income residents from moving to wealthier neighborhoods. In Tegeler’s opinion, the laws are one of the main drivers of housing unaffordability. Those laws typically exist at a local level, so in order to target them, Warren’s bill creates a competitive block grant program. The grant money could be spent flexibly—on schools or parks, for example—and is intended to appeal to suburban communities with stricter zoning laws.  Those communities can only access grants if they reexamine and redress their land restrictions.

The bill also focuses on the ways housing inequality falls along racial lines. Notably, it assists populations that federal housing policy has historically failed: formerly segregated African American populations and families whose housing wealth was destroyed in the financial crisis. Under the bill, black families long denied mortgages by the federal government qualify for down payment assistance, helping many in formerly segregated communities to become first-time home buyers. The bill also invests two billion dollars to support borrowers still recovering from the financial crisis with negative equity on their mortgages.

The bill also restructures the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a 1977 law proposed to monitor banks with discriminatory loan policies against communities of color. Warren’s bill gives the CRA more enforcement mechanisms and expands its policing power to include credit unions and nonbank mortgage companies, which were not as ubiquitous when the bill was passed. Lastly, the bill strengthens anti-discrimination laws by expanding Fair Housing Act protections to include gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, and source of income, attempting to limit housing segregation in the future.

It sounds like the bill tries to strike a balance between incentives for communities and developers and strengthening enforcement of guidelines against housing discrimination.

It will be interesting to see what tone the public debate takes, if it even reaches the level of public discussion. Housing issues are not on the national political radar screen. Historically, many Americans are reluctant to address housing concerns through the federal government. They would rather leave these matters to local governments, if government should address the matter at all. Support for public housing has always been limited.

Similarly, even stating an intention of trying to encourage certain suburban communities to open up their doors to different kinds of residents is a hard sell. Minorities and immigrants are indeed moving to suburbia but where they locate or can live is not necessarily even. (See this recent example from the Chicago suburbs of high black homeownership in certain communities.) A good number of suburbanites would attribute the residential segregation patterns to economic options and/or the ability of local communities to draw up guidelines of what kind of community they want to be (such as one without certain kinds of housing).

I would not expect such a bill to be an easy sell or even one that can garner much attention, even if it addresses issues that affect millions of Americans.

Manufactured housing to be more popular with fancier features?

Those seeking cheaper housing options may like both the price of manufactured housing and the features they can purchase:

The hope is that more Americans will see the factory units not only as a more-affordable alternative to a traditional single-family house, but also an appealing one, without the old trailer-park stigma. It helps that they’ve been getting fancier.

Scott Richards, a salesman for Rona Homes in Pataskala, Ohio, said that when shoppers come to his lot, he can dazzle them with customization options like hickory cabinets, rainforest showers and built-in entertainment systems coupled with electric fireplaces.

“We’ve got linoleum floors that look just like hardwood floors,” said Richards, who got back into selling factory-made houses after leaving the industry in 2012. “You don’t think about solid granite being in a manufactured home, but we have that as well.”…

The company sells what most people probably picture when they think of manufactured homes — single- and double-wide houses wholly built on a chassis in a factory — as well as modular homes, which are factory-built in sections that are assembled on a lot. While a single- or double-wide is often much cheaper than a modular home, both offer cost advantages that come with putting construction on an assembly line.

The article goes on to talk about some regulations involving the federal government and lenders that could be altered to make manufactured housing more available to house buyers. Theoretically, these changes could open the floodgates to cheaper housing for many.

Yet, I would suggest there is then another hurdle to overcome that might prove even more difficult. This housing may be cheaper than other options and it could even be attractive inside and out. This does not mean that it will be easily accepted by numerous communities, particularly those with higher qualities of life. In many of those places, manufactured housing implies all sorts of things that those communities work hard to keep out through formal and informal means. It will take time to reverse the common image of such housing.

The same issue faces tiny houses. Even if they look nice and are attractive inside, they are not easily accepted in places with more expensive single-family homes. Tiny houses are affordable – though significantly smaller than the manufactured housing options discussed in this article – but not necessarily that popular, either to consumers or neighbors.

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel now rolling out affordable housing ideas

The Chicago Tribune summarizes the recent efforts of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to promote affordable housing in the city:

The Tribune’s Jeff Coen and Gregory Pratt recently reported on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stumbles as he’s tried to tackle the tricky issue of affordable housing. They discovered that in gentrifying neighborhoods where affordable housing is most needed, fees paid by developers to fund housing at below-market rates get diverted elsewhere. In many cases, that money shows up on the South Side, where housing needs are great, but where affordable housing isn’t as acute of a problem as it is on the North Side.

They also found that the amount of affordable housing being built in the city is falling short of City Hall’s projections. In 2015, when City Hall strengthened the city’s affordable housing ordinance, Emanuel’s team predicted the creation of 1,200 new housing units by 2020. But as of the end of the first quarter in 2018, a Tribune analysis showed that the ordinance revamp had yielded only 194 affordable housing units, or a five-year pace of 431 units.

With a re-election campaign underway, the mayor’s been spitting out housing initiatives with dizzying speed — by our count, six measures within a span of a week that, one way or another, aim to make housing more affordable. Among them:

  • The creation of a housing department that brainstorms long-term remedies to the city’s lack of affordable housing;
  • The establishment of a $30 million fund to funnel low-cost financing to developers buying apartment buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods, with the catch that the developers have to set aside at least 20 percent of the units as affordable housing for at least 15 years;
  • The expansion of the city’s transit-oriented development program to four heavily used CTA bus lines. The city’s TOD program currently encourages high-density housing and retail near train stations. Apartment builders in TOD areas must provide affordable housing. That requisite would apply to TOD projects near bus lines along Western Avenue, Ashland Avenue, Chicago Avenue and 79th Street.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Chicago does not get as much attention regarding affordable housing as cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City. Yet, the city has major affordable housing needs stretching back decades. Luxury condos may be common in the Loop, River North, and along the city’s lakeshore but numerous other neighborhoods need good and cheap housing. The list of city residents waiting for public housing is very lengthy.
  2. This lack of attention paid to Chicago compared to those other cities also hints at the relative nature of affordable housing. Chicago may be cheap compared to San Francisco but that does not mean that the city is relatively expensive compared to other big cities in the Midwest or the South.
  3. Perhaps just as important as how many affordable housing units are created is where the affordable housing units are located. If most of the units end up in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, will this have a significant impact on worse-off neighborhoods?
  4. The Tribune mentions the looming reelection Emanuel faces: are these affordable housing ideas simply campaign fodder or is there going to be a sustained effort over time?

Lakewood, CA caught between suburban housing or job choices

A profile of Lakewood, California, a paradigmatic postwar suburb, suggests the community is no longer home to numerous suburban dreams:

So they settled in Lakewood, among the rows of modest little ranch-style houses, repeated in one of 20 or so iterations, interspersed with shopping centers, parks and schools. It’s a landscape that today appears completely unremarkable, but half a century ago embodied a powerful vision of the good life in California…

“The promise of Lakewood was enough of the good things of an everyday life — a simple house, a yard, infrastructure of schools and churches and shopping centers,” said D.J. Waldie, an author and former city historian who wrote the book, “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in Lakewood from the 1950s, when the subdivision exploded out of lima bean fields into a suburb of 70,000…

Those solid middle-class jobs nearby have shipped out. To afford to buy a home here, a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov — spending more of their day in ever-worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching Little League or exploring the wonders of California.

The promise of places like Lakewood has been carved down into little pieces with Californians forced to pick between them: choose the house or choose the nearby job, but seldom both.

The issue discussed in the article is a common one: the locations of jobs and affordable or even somewhat affordable housing are not necessarily close. Many metropolitan regions do not have the infrastructure to provide options besides driving for the important suburb to suburb trips that make up the largest segment of trips. And to some degree, these locations can change. When Lakewood was developed, how many people predicted the true multinucleated nature of the Los Angeles region?

Certainly, more affordable housing is needed. At the same time, is there hope of spreading out good jobs or introducing new jobs in more residential communities? The typical bedroom suburb does not have to remain as such.

How to make a better public case for abundant housing in four steps

After witnessing a positive result in front of a neighborhood council for a small project in Los Angeles, Virginia Postrel suggests four steps can help smooth the process:

Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to…

But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.

 

Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.

Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

 

Generally, these look like good steps anybody seeking to redevelop property could benefit from. From some of my own work, these would be helpful for those constructing teardown houses in the suburbs as well as religious groups seeking to alter an existing building or construct a new building. Building a relationship with people in the community as well as presenting a cogent and reasonable case can go a long ways.

At the same time, I wonder if these four steps might be idiosyncratic and apply only to certain places and at certain times. This particular case is from a state and region that has a large need for more housing. The description of the steps above suggest that residents were more open to this project because they feared something worse. Additionally, this project is within a city and region that is already very dense (and one of the densest regions in the United States). Residents are used to denser housing.

I suspect redevelopment would be a much tougher sell in areas or communities that are (1) primarily comprised of single-family homes with some distance from denser land uses and (2) where housing demand is lower (or is perceived to be much lower – the Chicago area may have a big need for affordable housing but it would be hard to convince many communities of this).