RPA Report Pitches ADUs as a Big Answer to Affordable Housing

Image Credit: Robin Breeding


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STAMFORD — According to a new report released by the Regional Plan Association, Fairfield County homeowners could create 40,000 new apartments by 2040 simply by building Accessory Dwelling Units and converting large single family homes into duplexes or multiple living spaces.

CT Examiner spoke with Marcel Negret, a senior planner at RPA, about what those numbers mean on a practical level for town leaders and homeowners.

The estimates are based on a new law, Public Act 21-29, that requires towns in Connecticut to allow accessory dwelling units “as of right” — or opt out before Jan. 2023.

Given that 96 percent of residential parcels in Fairfield County are categorized as single-unit, so called ADUs would provide an opportunity to significantly increase the supply of housing, according to Be My Neighbor in Fairfield County – Untapped Housing Solutions: ADUs and Conversions. 

“Fairfield County has long been a ‘tale of two cities,’ grappling with extreme disparities in wealth, health and quality of life,” said Melissa Kaplan-Macey, vice president of state programs and Connecticut director at the Regional Plan Association, in a release. “Now that Governor Lamont and the State Legislature have set a ‘floor’ with new minimum zoning standards, towns and cities can go further and increase their housing stock by more than 11% in less than twenty years with ADU- and conversion-friendly policies.”

The phrase accessory dwelling units, encompasses a variety of add-on apartments in attics, over-the-garage and basement apartments as well as tiny houses that are located on the same property as a single-family house. A large single family house could also be converted into a duplex or multiple apartments with certain restrictions.  

The RPA report recommends that the state and regional councils of government offer programs for technical assistance, financing and information on building ADUs and converting houses, especially for senior citizens and low-moderate income households. Other recommendations to towns included implementing more flexible parking requirements, changing zoning ordinances to ease the creation of ADUs and the conversion of single family homes. RPA also discouraged towns from opting out.

The report was funded by Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity and follows Be My Neighbor, the Regional Planning Association July 2020 region-wide assessment of capacity for ADUs and house conversions. 

Into the weeds on ADUs 

The construction of thousands of ADUs and the conversion of single family homes into multiple-unit dwellings would pose a number of technical, legal and fiscal questions, and would likely require additional policies and procedures. 

Among many issues, thousands of homeowners will become landlords for the first time, raising questions about landlord responsibilities and tenant rights.

And however many ADUs are constructed, under present law, few if any would likely qualify toward the 10 percent threshold under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute. 

CT Examiner spoke with Marcel Negret to clarify those and other issues related to the report.

CTEx: It appears that under the current law, ADUs would not count toward a town’s qualifying percentage of affordable housing stock. How will additional ADUs help towns reach 10 percent affordability?

In this specific report we don’t mention how ADUs should or shouldn’t count towards fair share contributions as completed by the 8-30g statute. In the report we released a year ago, the first regional recommendations that we issued said that states could provide financial programs and technical assistance to enable communities of homeowners to adopt and implement the ADUs provisions.

With the proper oversight, those new units could contribute to local fair share obligations, which in the case of Connecticut, that will be associated with 8-30g — but the key understanding is proper oversight, that needs to be underlined — that’s kind of a precondition.

The types of assistance programs that I mentioned would ensure that these units are indeed meeting the issues of affordability and the income brackets, and the tenant protections that are associated with these fair share obligations. 

CTEx: What type of oversight and regulations would be needed between the state, the town and the homeowner?

It’s making sure that these units would indeed meet the financial [criteria] of affordability, based on the income brackets. 

For a traditional income-restricted unit in a multifamily building, restricted rents are probably overseen by the housing authority, and then it’s tying those financial [pieces] to incentivized financial mechanisms to maintain certain tax exemptions or abatements. 

It’s hard to tell exactly how that translates into the context of ADUs and single family houses. But, there has to be some type of program that is tracking where these units are being created, tracking where the type of assistance might be going to, and the loans that might be being created. Based on that information, you could ensure that they are actually committing to affordability compliance.

CTEx: Given the more personal nature of the ADU rentals, is the RPA concerned that the rentals will be less equitable, less accessible and more inclined as to discrimination?

The main thing that we can make a case for right now, and what the report does, is addressing the supply and demand imbalance that has been exacerbated throughout the pandemic, and how that has a negative effect and has exacerbated the already increasing housing pressures that are affecting households that are in the greatest need. There’s been a correlation between those two things. 

So, indirectly answering that question, if we address housing supply and demand imbalance, we are putting less stress on the already current constraints that are affecting those renters that are in the most need. 

To answer more directly is the importance and the details of the type of technical assistance — the financing and information programs that need to be considered — that indeed have a competitive ability to address the equity and discrimination issues. It will depend on how well developed and how robust these programs are, and whether they’re able to offer the proper incentives in a way that homeowners will take advantage of them or not. 

CTEx: There are many existing ADUs in towns that are currently not counted in affordable housing totals because the rents are not restricted or tracked. How do existing ADUs factor into the housing picture? 

We estimated that currently there are 9000 parcels throughout the entire county that have secondary residences and those would be either an ADU or a duplex. Those could have been grandfathered at a time when they were legal and were conforming to zoning but then they changed the zoning code to make them restricted or prohibited entirely, and so they became legal non-conforming ADUs. In other cases they might be illegal. We don’t really know for sure. Based on the digital information derived from property tax information, it’s hard to make that distinction between those ADUs and duplexes.

So, when we talk about the program’s type of financial assistance, we’re also talking about programs that would improve the digital infrastructure that we currently have — to have a better understanding where the current ADUs are built. If we pair that with the programs that we’ve been talking about, there will be a way to monitor and to have the proper oversight to ensure that they’re actually contributing their fair share in terms of affordability — based on the legal definitions of fair share and  the 8-30g statute. But there’s a lot to be done to ensure that the equity component is in place.

CTEx: What are the next steps toward building ADUs and converting single family houses in Connecticut? 

From a broader housing perspective, we consider ADUs just one tool in the housing toolbox — we knew they would not fix everything. We recognize there are many other things that need to be simultaneously considered. Going back to the programs that are needed and other types of housing typologies that need to be promoted and incentivized, we’re hoping that that conversation will continue. 

We do feel that there’s many, many reasons why there needs to be better collaboration and coordination between state and local governments. And so, I think the overall strategy is to continue to nurture and incentivize those types of conversations.