This is the first of a new blog series exploring promising solutions for addressing our region’s housing crisis, at all scales and in all communities. Not everyone needs to be a housing expert in order to advocate for housing in their community – but Vital Communities and the White River Valley Consortium believe that a broader discussion of housing strategy, with those who know their own communities and their own experiences best, is essential for finding the right solutions.
The Potential of “Accessory Dwelling Units”
Finding the right solutions to address our severe and growing housing crisis can feel overwhelming. Our communities care deeply about ensuring every resident can find a home – a safe, appealing, and affordable home. Our communities also care about protecting our farm and forest land from sprawling development, protecting our waterways and ourselves from flood hazards, and preserving public and commercial space in our village centers. So, one of the questions that often comes up, especially in smaller towns, is: where is housing going to go?
Meeting our housing needs will require multiple strategies. We need a variety of different housing, and that includes new multi-unit development, creative re-use of existing buildings, and some new single-family homes in appropriate locations on the landscape. However, we also need emerging and creative solutions that make efficient use of available land and/or existing buildings. One such solution that is growing in popularity is the development of accessory dwelling units.
The legal definition of an
accessory dwelling unit (ADU) varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general usage, it is any smaller dwelling that is added on to the main home on the same lot. A familiar form in Vermont is the “in-law apartment” that a family adds to their house for older family members (or adult children), but there are many variations. An ADU may be an apartment or a tiny house or other small dwelling; it may be within the structure of the main house (for example, a basement apartment), added on to the main house, or not attached at all; and while the ADU itself is generally occupied by someone other than the property owner, the main house may either be owner-occupied or also rented.
One of the main reasons to consider ADUs as a housing solution in your community is that they are a way to create additional rental units with minimal impact on the landscape. An ADU can also provide crucial financial support for homeowners, with the rental income helping the owner afford to stay in their own home. I recently spoke with a retired farmer from the area who successfully sold his farm last year to a new, young farming couple; he said the rental income from the accessory apartment that already existed on the house was an essential part of their ability to buy the property and keep it in farming.
Despite all these benefits, building and managing an ADU can also be challenging. Materials and labor for any construction are expensive, and there are fewer loan options for ADUs than for traditional homes. Moreover, building a new ADU requires homeowners to navigate a complicated design and permitting process. Once the ADU exists, homeowners also need the soft skills, maintenance skills, and understanding of regulations required to be a good landlord.
The good news is that these barriers are far from insurmountable, and many folks in our area are interested in exploring how we as a community can collectively support the creation and offering of ADUs.
How to Support ADUs in Your Community
Building a support system for ADUs could take many different forms, ranging from simple education and information sharing, to customized technical assistance, to programs that assist with financing and improvements to our regulatory system.
Whether you’re interested in creating one yourself or just want to advocate for more ADUs in your community, there are plenty of resources on the basics of ADU construction. A few I find helpful are this how-to handbook on creating an accessory apartment created by the Mad River Valley Housing Coalition, and this ADU How-To Checklist from DHCD. The former provides an overall picture of the process, while the latter goes into more detail on permitting and financing.
As we think about what it could look like to create a program that works directly with individual homeowners on this process, one of the models worth looking at is the Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing Coalition Apartments-in-Homes program. This program, which is funded by a charitable trust, individual donations, and the Town of Brattleboro, had created over 50 apartments as of 2017. The program provides technical assistance (“often some handholding”) and a grant to reimburse 50% of actual construction costs up to $10,000.
There are a few conditions to the program. Homes must be owner-occupied with no plans to sell within the next five years, for instance. However, homeowners are fully in charge of the apartment and to whom they rent. The program does not set official limits on the rental rate that can be charged but only assists projects that produce apartments “modest in size, design, and finishes” that, once on the market, are likely to be accessible to those with low or moderate incomes. You can read more about their process, and the lessons they have learned over the years, on their short and insightful “Information for Housing Organizations” page.
Also interesting to note is that the program specifically highlights the Town of Brattleboro’s Rental Housing Improvement Program, explaining that ADU construction is eligible for those low-interest loans and that the Apartments-in-Homes program can assist the homeowner with the application process. As we think about an ADU support program, we can consider ways it could complement and even collaborate with other housing support that is not specific to ADUs.
These are only a few of the myriad ways we could support the ability of homeowners to create ADUs for their own housing security and to meet their community’s housing needs. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend the article Affordable ADU’s: How It’s Being Done from Shelterforce magazine. The article is part of a series and the other installments are a great explanation of the challenges and limitations to ADUs; this one describes a variety of different successful programs from around the country.
We’re also just beginning to explore these ideas within the White River Valley Consortium and across the Upper Valley and we’re hoping you’ll join us in this conversation. If you have thoughts on the applicability of this solution to the White River Valley or want to join that housing effort in general, please contact WRVC manager Sarah Danly at email@example.com. If you’re interested in this model as applied elsewhere in the Upper Valley, please contact the Vital Communities housing staff, John Haffner (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ellen Hender (email@example.com). We’d love to hear from you.