ADUs, Affordable Housing and the ‘Missing Middle’ Agenda for Southeast Connecticut

“In the housing and planning world, there is a larger conversation nationally around accessory apartments as sort of an easy way to expand the low cost housing supply in communities,” said Sean Ghio, policy director for Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based nonprofit founded in 1998 with a grant from The Melville Charitable Trust to advocate on issues of affordable housing and homelessness.

In zoning terms, an accessory apartment, also known as a granny flat, in-law suite, guest cottage or garage apartment, is an “Accessory Dwelling Unit,” or ADU, which is a secondary, smaller housing unit on a residential single-family lot. An ADU can be located within, attached to or detached from the larger house. 

“I think they can help be a major piece of the puzzle. I think they are generally insufficient by themselves [as a solution] and it would be a slow process to see them make a real dent except in real hot real estate markets and job markets,” he said.

Ghio said that as towns develop plans for affordable housing, required under 8-30j, a provision passed by the Connecticut legislature in 2018, ADUs could be part of the solution toward meeting the state’s goal of 10 percent qualified affordable housing.

“First of all, it’s not cost prohibitive like a lot of new construction and it’s incremental so it tends to fit in with communities a lot better,” he said.

The construction of ADUs is restricted in many towns and prohibited in others. But even if ADUs are allowed by right in a town, said John Guszkowski, senior planner at CHA Consulting, Inc. and co-chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Connecticut chapter of the American Planning Association, the demand still depends on a number of factors, including jobs and transit.

“I think they can help be a major piece of the puzzle. I think they are generally insufficient by themselves [as a solution] and it would be a slow process to see them make a real dent except in real hot real estate markets and job markets,” he said. “I could see that being effective in the greater Groton, Stonington and maybe Waterford areas where you basically are in pretty tight proximity to major employers that are having kind of a housing crunch. These things are going to be more effective in those places where people want to move because of employment or a combination of employment and good schools.”

Guszkowski also suggested ADUs as an opportunity for towns to retain their own young people.

“It’s a very important piece of the puzzle but it won’t do much for those towns that are looking to satisfy their affordable housing allotment and get the state off their back as far as affordable housing appeals,” said Guszkowski.

“If they come back, they’re going to have to buy a small single family residence, and that’s really out of reach. So, by creating diffuse opportunity to add an apartment above the garage or a mini house out back or a free standing apartment or accessory dwelling unit of some other type, it really adds to the opportunity for these towns to compete for their own future, to compete for their own young people and not necessarily lose them and obviously attracting new residents too and young families,” he said. 

An ADU won’t count toward the state’s 10 percent threshold, however, unless a property owner puts an income limit on the rental, Guszkowski.

“It’s a very important piece of the puzzle but it won’t do much for those towns that are looking to satisfy their affordable housing allotment and get the state off their back as far as affordable housing appeals,” said Guszkowski. “Someone building an apartment above a garage or a cottage in the backyard is not going to deed-restrict that unit. They’re not going to do an annual financial check of their tenants to make sure they are lower or moderate income. So they won’t be counted officially by the state necessarily on those ‘capital A’ affordable housing lists, but they will definitely help satisfy market demand.”

Data and sewers

Actually identifying and counting the number of ADUs in Connecticut is a challenge.

A new Freddie Mac study uses text mining from MLS transactions to identify 1.4 million properties with ADUs across the country. In the past the data was culled from municipal building permits, but whether the issued permits were completed was unclear. The permit data also did not reflect “shadow housing,” or illegal ADUs.

According to the study, first-time ADU listings grew at an average annual rate of 8.6 percent from 2009 to 2019 and rose as a percentage of total active listings from 3.5 to 6.6 percent during that period. 

A 2018 Southeastern Connecticut Housing Needs Assessment, which was prepared by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments for the Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance, found that the number cost-burdened renters in the region increased from 32 percent in 2000 to 48 percent in 2015. 

The 2018 study showed that out of 20 towns east of the Connecticut River that were part of the study, 16 allowed accessory dwelling units and four of the 16 limited occupancy to relatives of the property owner.

According to Sam Gold, executive director of the River Council of Governments, one of the limiting factors for building ADUs, if a town has vacant land, is sewer availability and the soil capacity for a septic field.

“ADUs can only be built where they can be accommodated,” Gold said. 

Guszkowski said he’s working on legislation to change the state public health code, which currently requires a separate septic system for ADUs. 

“That can be a lot of added expense and you may not have square footage for that, but on our 1-, 2-, 3-acre lots out in rural Connecticut, that’s really not a problem. People with sewer lines have no problem with that,” he said. “We need to make sure that state public health is on board with making this stuff more possible.” 

Short-term rentals and Airbnb

One argument against a town allowing ADUs is the concern that property owners will use the structures as short-term rentals, like Airbnb, rather than for long-term leases to meet local housing needs.

“Several of our towns have looked at the Airbnb issue in the last year or two and each one of them comes at it from a different perspective,” said Amanda Kennedy, deputy director of the Southeastern Council of Governments. “Some towns liked Airbnbs in their towns because it supports the thriving tourism industry and it provides additional revenue for property owners and so they’ve elected to not restrict the use whereas others want to preserve more of a permanent year-round occupancy in their housing and so they would be more likely to require more from properties wanting to use Airbnb.”

Ghio said there was some legitimacy to the wariness toward Airbnb evident in some shoreline towns.

“Seasonal rentals create this weird marketplace when you live in a place where people want to visit,” he said. “But the same can be said for any housing type, not just ADUs. They all could be rented as Airbnb.” 

Enforcement issues become extremely difficult if Airbnb is prohibited, said Guszkowski.

“Where’s the line, is a one year lease fine? Is a six-month lease fine? Is a one month fine? At what point does it become an Airbnb?” he said. “That’s really hard, particularly from an enforcement standpoint because you’re asking zoning enforcement officers to do an interview and background check who’s in and out.” 

The missing middle agenda

“The concept is that 100 years ago there was a diversity of housing types — everything from single family homes on large lots to large apartment towers,” explained Kennedy. “But in the middle there were three-family homes, six-unit small apartment buildings, two-family houses. The ‘missing middle’ agenda says we need to start building those different housing types again so that it’s not just the big apartment complex and the single family home.”

According to Kennedy, this missing middle housing can be more efficient to build and meet the needs of more kinds of households.

“You can have a diversity of housing types in a suburban neighborhood that suit each other with good design.”

“We think this is ‘normal’ but it’s an monoculture experiment that Connecticut has to grow out of because it doesn’t provide the right kind of housing for a lot of people. It just doesn’t,” he said.

For Ghio, the idea of building these in-between varieties of housing — neither single-family detached houses nor apartment buildings — is not just a step forward, but also a step back to a historic diversity of living arrangements once common to New England.

“All these traditional forms of our old town centers, you’ll still see examples, they’ve all been zoned out of most of our communities. How do we go back to what was really a very traditional New England form?”

According to Ghio, Connecticut is in for a long transition from a suburban car culture to a new model with more types of housing and density. 

“We think this is ‘normal’ but it’s an monoculture experiment that Connecticut has to grow out of because it doesn’t provide the right kind of housing for a lot of people. It just doesn’t,” he said.