Accessory Dwelling Units Rock. But Should States Be Overriding Cities' Laws About Building Them?


Accessory dwelling units may be small, but they’re a big topic in the conversation about how to strengthen the housing supply in our communities. That’s because for many places, letting private homeowners build a granny flat above the garage or a tiny home in the backyard seems like a natural, low-risk next step to thicken up our stock of affordable homes. At Strong Towns, we’ve long advocated that breaking down barriers to building ADUs is a no-brainer in most cases—but sometimes, an interesting story comes our way that just might prove the exception to the rule.

Or at least that’s what Strong Towns member and contributor Spencer Gardner thought when he read this story from the Sightline Institute about proposed ADU legislation in his home state of Washington. While WA legalized ADUs statewide way back in 1993, local regulations and zoning have still made them functionally impossible to build in many areas, stymying would-be micro-developers who can’t get around high utility connection fees, onerous setback requirements, and—the real kicker—hard and fast owner-occupancy requirements. But while removing all these barriers sounded good to Spencer when he considered his own community of Spokane, the fact that the state is the one lifting these restrictions—rather than Washington’s cities—gave him serious pause. So we invited him to be a guest on this episode of Upzoned to talk about his reservations.

Will Washington’s ground-breaking bill lead to the kind of gentle and gradual gentrification—or, to use the buzzword of the moment, “gentlefication”—that can create affordable housing solutions without disrupting the physical, economic, and cultural fabric of neighborhoods? Or will it unleash a cataclysmic gold rush of new development—albeit in bite-size form—that can distort land values and become a recipe for decline? Are capping utility hook-up fees an overdue step to make it possible for would-be tiny homers to get basic services like water into their backyard apartments? Or are there good reasons to let cities set their own fees—like when that backyard shed just so happens to be located on a far-out rural lot that’s colossally expensive to service?

And then in the Downzone, Mary Poppins Returns gets a second shout-out—this time from Kea—and Spencer gives you perhaps the weirdest downzone submission of all time. That’s right: it’s time to meet Jesus and the Angry Babies.

Top photo via Creative Commons.