In-law—and Out-law—Apartments

How to double neighborhood housing without anyone noticing.
This post is 8 in the series: Legalizing Inexpensive Housing

Let’s take a virtual stroll, via Street View: start on West Seventh and Blenheim in Vancouver, BC’s Kitsilano, as quintessential-looking a Cascadian neighborhood as any you can imagine. In the upper pane of the image above (or by following the link to Street View), point your cursor up and down the block and look around. Familiar, right? In Seattle, it might be on Capitol Hill, in Portland, perhaps in Irvington or the Northwest District. Other cities and towns have similar places: old streetcar zones, walkable places of leafy canopies and arts-and-crafts homes. Nearby are low-rise shopping streets with banks and dry cleaners, restaurants and coffee shops, all following the historic routes of trolleys. Kitsilano is, like other streetcar-era neighborhoods across the Northwest, among the most sought-after places to live. Prices are high, and residents are protective of their neighborhoods’ quality of life and character.

Yet whatever it may look like, Kitsilano is anything but typical. In fact, Kitsilano — like the rest of Vancouver but unlike most other Cascadian cities — embodies something dramatically different and unusual: the enormous potential both for housing and for sustainability of allowing homeowners to blend small apartments and cottages into and among their houses. In brief, Kitsilano is riddled with what planners call “accessory dwelling units” or “ADUs.”

Patrick Condon, a professor in the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, has studied the area around West Seventh and Blenheim. Home builders developed the zone in the 1920s with two- and three-bedroom, one-bath bungalows on small lots, about 6.5 of them per acre. By the time Condon surveyed the area in the late 1990s, homeowners had tucked so many daylit-basement flats, attic apartments, and stand-alone cottages into the neighborhood that the density had more than doubled to 13.4 dwellings per acre. At that density, neighborhood stores can thrive, transit can run full and frequently, and car ownership and driving both dip much lower than in regular single-family neighborhoods. The architectural feel of the neighborhood, however, had hardly budged.

Commonplace, Common-sense, and Criminal

The story of this process, typified by Kitsilano but found across Vancouver, shows the degree to which land-use rules stymie the development of hundreds of thousands of inexpensive housing units across Cascadia. Previous articles in this series critiqued laws that criminalize old forms of affordable housing, such as residential hotels, and that cap the number of roommates who may share living quarters.

This one looks higher up the price scale. It focuses on ADUs — separate housing units with their own kitchens and bathrooms that are built in single-family houses or on their lots. ADUs are conventional housing units by modern standards, but they are usually small, making them less expensive than most residences in the single-family neighborhoods where they are. (It also, interestingly, makes them much, much gentler on the environment in their construction and operation than larger units. In fact, intriguing research from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Portland, summarized here, shows that building small is the single-most important way to build green.)

My overarching message, however, is identical: perhaps the biggest opportunity that Cascadian cities have within their own legal power for advancing sustainability, local prosperity, and affordability is to repeal a raft of land-use regulations that criminalize the bottom end of the private-sector housing market. Such rules drive up costs, penalize families on tight budgets, and lower population density below levels that would allow us to create a post-carbon economy and way of life.

ADUs fall into two categories: attached ADUs, or “AADUs” and detached ADUs or “DADUs.” Artless though these terms may be, they do de-clutter a topic inundated with names:  AADUs are called “mother-in-law apartments,” “granny flats,” “basement apartments,” “secondary suites,” “family suites,” “mortgage helpers,” and other things. DADUs are laneway houses in Vancouver, BC; they are backyard cottages in Seattle. Elsewhere, they are guest houses, garden houses, carriage or coach houses, casitas, and more.

The nomenclature of ADUs is anything but standard, yet the housing type is old and commonplace. For decades, seniors and young couples, working-class singles and fledgling adults have rented affordable spaces in neighborhoods of detached houses. The pattern is so normal that if you think for a moment, you’ll likely be able to remember several experiences with them yourself. In my mid-twenties, I rented a garden apartment below a Washington, DC, townhouse. I loved it: so convenient and cozy. In my thirties, I employed a nanny for my kids who lived in a similar unit in Seattle; she never could have afforded such a great neighborhood were it not for that apartment. Heck, even The Fonz lived in an ADU — an apartment above the Cunningham’s garage.

As unremarkable as they are, however, ADUs were illegal in most Northwest cities until relatively recently, and their legalization has progressed only slowly, haltingly, and partially. Legal barriers to them remain ubiquitous and pernicious, and they are far less prevalent than they ought to be, considering all they offer in affordability, sustainability, and flexibility for homeowners and tenants.

Suites of Vancouver

That’s why Vancouver’s ADU story is so important. It starts in the 1980s, when the city’s official growth strategy was to channel burgeoning population into dense, new neighborhoods on vacant industrial land. The housing market was responding to growth on its own, in addition. Illegal basement apartments were proliferating in Vancouver, often rented to students in the tonier western part of town near the University of British Columbia and to immigrants in the lower-rent eastern part. Using data from the electric utility BC Hydro, Nathan Edelson, then a planner for the city assigned to work on ADUs, estimated that Vancouver held tens of thousands of illegal secondary suites. Perhaps as many as one fourth of single-family houses in the city had apartments tucked inside them by the late 1980s, Edelson told me.

The rapid change in neighborhoods fomented controversy, which spilled out in community meetings about the new Skytrain stations the city was building, according to Edelson. Neighbors raised all the objections still rehearsed whenever renters appear in single-family zones: parking, noise, “loss of character,” crowding and safety — the same arguments debunked in this article on roommate caps. But others, including many owners of suites, wanted to legalize them.

Embroiled in the controversy, the city council did two things. First, it legalized “family suites” citywide: an owner could build a complete, in-home apartment for a parent, adult child, or other member of the family. The council also decided to conduct community discussions and votes, in one neighborhood after another, on whether to legalize AADUs. The process was contentious and harrowing for planners like Edelson. Over a period of years, it produced a patchwork of zones where ADUs were allowed and banned. Whatever the legalities, however, in-home apartments continued to sprout. Housing prices in Vancouver were high and rising. Owners needed income, and renters clamored for affordable flats.

By 2004, when the council revisited the issue in its entirety, the controversy had run out of steam. So many people owned suites, or lived in them, and the years of debate had so thoroughly exorcised the ghosts of neighborhood opposition, that when the city council held hearings, scarcely ten citizens showed up to voice concerns, recalls Edelson. The council enacted a sweeping city-wide legalization of AADUs. Councillors also relaxed rules about ceiling heights and sprinkler systems, which had impeded construction of legal basement apartments. It set minimum and maximum size limits for AADUs that were more generous than most cities’: a Vancouver secondary suite can be just as big as the primary unit, making it almost like a duplex.

Moving Outdoors

The story of ADUs in Vancouver did not end there. Next came DADUs or, as they’re called in Vancouver, “laneway houses.” Detached units were legalized by the city council in 2009 on 90 percent of the city’s single-family lots: about 70,000 lots could now hold not just one but two accessory units, one inside and one out back. It allowed DADUs to be fairly large, compared with many cities. Vancouver city planner Patricia St. Michel says, “There are over 800 laneway houses approved in the city.” In 2012, the city issued more than 350 permits.

Next, Vancouver legalized secondary suites inside of condos and revised its rules to allow them to be as small as 200 square feet. That’s right: if you own a condo that can accommodate a separate entrance, bathroom, and kitchen and still satisfy the rest of the building code, you are welcome to install an apartment and rent it out.

Virtues of Omission

What Vancouver did not do is as significant as what it did. Unlike most Cascadian cities, Vancouver has never required that property owners live on lots with ADUs. It did not require that DADUs match the design of the primary house, which has allowed developers to standardize and begin prefabricating DADUs. It did not require that the owner provide off-street parking for each accessory unit.

Vancouver also did not require that ADUs share the occupancy quotas of their primary units, as many cities do. In Portland, for example, no more than six unrelated people may live on a single-family lot, whether it holds only a shotgun shack or both a six-bedroom mansion and a two-bedroom cottage. Vancouver’s five-person occupancy limit for unrelated residents is lower than Seattle or Portland’s, yet it awards a new occupancy quota to each ADU. A Vancouver single-family lot with a house, secondary suite, and cottage could legally house 15 unrelated people — five each in the house, flat, and cottage.

Let’s review: In the past quarter century, Vancouver, BC, first engaged in a decade of intramural shouting matches over the city’s proliferating basement apartments, then it shrugged and legalized them — almost all of them. Over the same period, it considered and opted against or dispensed with a slew of restrictions that other cities routinely impose: owner occupancy, off-street parking spaces, design mandates, tight restrictions on the number of roommates. Then, it approved an entire second accessory unit on each lot, these ones as laneway houses in the back garden. It even approved adding a second unit in each condo.

In Vancouver, ADUs keep marching forward. The city is preparing to legalize laneway houses on another 6 percent of single-family lots, on top of the 90 percent already allowed. Policy debate has moved on from legalization to whether the city should encourage or require all new houses to be “suite ready” — designed so that future owners can easily convert parts of their homes to apartments. Suite-readiness in intended to give cities more flexibility to respond to shifting demographics and big changes that are approaching such as climate change, carbon pricing, and the prospect of peak oil. The city of Coquitlam, BC, already encourages suite-readiness, and a housing task force chaired by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has urged the city council to do the same.

Next time, we’ll look at how many ADUs cities have and how fast cities are permitting them. Then, in the final ADU article, we’ll review the rules that block them.

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  1. JoshMahar says:

    Great post! I think you are absolutely right by reinforcing that density can more than double without losing the quintessential streetscapes that so many Cascadians know and love.

    I’d really love to see the city council/mayor working harder on these types of changes across the city. Seems almost more important than the height battles that take up so many political resources and yet, involve such small swaths of the city.

  2. Lesa Dixon-Gray says:

    I love hearing Vancouver’s story. Here in Portland, we have an underground “Granny Flat” system. There are lots of homemade basement and attic spaces, most of them not permitted – it’s way too difficult. About 3 years ago, Portland decided to waive the cost of permits to build ADUs. The cost is still prohibitive; banks won’t lend money to build an ADU. But, if you’ve got the money, Portland has been trying to encourage, legal, permitted ADUs – without the permit fees.

    I built my detached ADU (590 sq ft) for my aging Mom. It’s been about two years now, and it’s great, it does match the larger house, and has some handicapped accessible features (no steps, 3 ft wide doorways, grabrails in the bathroom), and she’s safe and happy in my backyard. It’s fitting our needs perfectly. The sad part is, after she is gone, legally, I’m not supposed to rent it out. Supposedly, it’s only to be for family. Right, like that’s going to happen…

  3. Ron Jagelski says:

    I have a mother in law apartment in my home. Its income was the only way I was able to afford to purchase in the first place. In 10 years I have rented to two people and it has worked beautifully. The home is more fun with people in it and the neighborhood is safer with more people on the sidewalks and street. And from an economic standpoint, I estimate I have made over $100,000 from the unit in 10 years.

  4. Bill Bradburd says:

    While the ADU and DADU have arguably far lower development impacts than the knock-down/rebuild approach that is encouraged and preferred by developers (because the end product is more profitable) the economic benefits of this gentler infill to the property owner should be highlighted.

    And of course preservation of embedded carbon, greater stormwater permeability, less waste and new materials, and better building form and streetscape consistency certainly make this infill housing stock preferable in many regards.

    But allowing of 800 sqft backyard “cottages” that can go as high as 23ft, may be pushing the limit of what is supposed to be a smaller housing stock, and really my be more of duplexing of the single family zone, rather than a means to provide efficiency unit living.

    That 800 sqft housing is far from the goals of “advancing sustainability, local prosperity, and affordability”.

    • Jonathan says:

      the economic benefits of this gentler infill to the property owner should be highlighted

      Good point. Alan seems reticent to discuss that. How’s about we tax the current use value, while offering to sell (or even lease) density bonuses to anybody. I think that’s actually a realistic solution that would be fairly consistent with City policy up until this point. Could also turn Seattle into a city state.

  5. Jonathan says:

    It’s a cliche, but I always just point to Houston. No land use code at all, and yet it looks pretty much the same as every other planned city — except that they have one of the lowest price-to-income ratios in the country.

    What was it Confucius had to say about omission? To govern by virtue is to be the calm center, the nucleus…. the North Star around which the heavens turn. But we do not learn from history.

    Meanwhile a subcommittee of the Seattle City Council has deliberated for 8 years and counting on the height of buildings in a single neighborhood, and the committee still does not understand the proposal before them! Sooner or later a grown up is going to going to have to step in and explain why we can’t vote on every single thing that happens.

    Also: ADU or not, the rent is still too damn high! Tax the land, not goods or labor!

    • Bryn Davidson says:

      There are many illegal conversions of garages in Vancouver, as well, and – prior to legalization – there were many illegal basement suites. Now, with legal suites and lane houses, the ‘single family’ properties in Vancouver are all effectively triplex lots. This kind of hidden density allows for the ~10+ dwelling units/acre that you need to support local shops and transit.

      With regard to fees, on each lane house we pay ~$20k in permit fees, with the majority of that being a sewer connection fee (~$12k) that contributes to the ongoing separation of storm and sanitary sewers throughout the city. The city fees make up ~7% of a $300k project.

      The $300k price tag for a ~800sf lane house in Vancouver probably solicits bewilderment from those of you living in less expensive neighbourhoods, but – as a benchmark – this is a deep discount relative to the $400 to $500k that you might pay for a similarly sized new condo (presuming that you or your family already own the lot).

      The ADUs we’re building in Vancouver also generate premium rents relative to condos or basements suites.

      For this reason most banks here are happy to finance ADU projects. Anyone in Vancouver who has owned their land more than 5 years typically has lots of equity in their main house and so the banks are happy to give a home equity line of credit for the construction.

      Finally… with regard to the comparison to Houston… I don’t even know where to start! Vancouver prices and bureaucracy are tiresome at times, but the end result is so completely and fundamentally different from Houston that it’s hard to even put them in the same sentence. Having spent time in Houston, and other similarly car-dominated cities, I’m always glad to return to my little Vancouver condo and walkable neighbourhoods.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Oh, I’m not packing up for Houston just yet! Or ancient China, for that matter. Though both are very useful comparisons, I think.

    Perhaps NYC prior to ~1920 is more to your liking? There was no zoning there or anywhere else in the US at that time. All of the old urbanism that new urbanism is trying to emulate was originally achieved without zoning.

  7. Sophia Katt says:

    The struggle continues all over, not just in Cascadia:

    Traverse City is located in the Great Lakes area of Michigan.

  8. Travis Skinner says:

    I wrote my thesis for the Master’s of Environmental Studies program about ADUs and Accessory Structures in Olympia, WA. I think overwhelmingly city planning departments across the country support a gentle densification technique, but they need a model for a coding system that makes it easy. People who want to develop infill should be encouraged!?! How could we possibly do that? TRY. Check out my thesis if you are interested: chapters are tabs at the top.

    I have been building these units (whatever means necessary) and I have more ideas now. The stuff in here still stands but it I have evolved my understanding to that of a building perspective.

  9. Joe Wolf says:

    Link to a photo of the Mendoza Lane Laneway (alley) home in Vancouver, B.C.
    It was the first home completed after the 2009 passage of Vancouver’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance.

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