In some places they’re called mother-in-law suites, in others illegal apartments.
Whatever the reference – zoning officials say ADU for “accessory dwelling unit” – they’ve come to be called controversial in the hot debate over how to alleviate the state’s affordable housing crisis.
Housing advocates say ADUs are a vehicle for creating more affordable rental units and greater access to Connecticut’s wealthy towns, where crime is low and quality of education is high.
Last year legislators passed a law legalizing ADUs statewide. It allows them to be built in single-family houses as of right, meaning without a zoning variance, special permit or public hearing.
An ADU, by the law, is a separate unit on the same lot as the house. It includes a kitchen, and satisfies building and fire codes, health and safety regulations. ADUs can be added on, or built in attics, basements, garages or yards, and have few parking space requirements.
Affordable housing advocates say ADUs have many upsides.
The Regional Plan Association, a group that seeks to improve quality of life in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, says that about 35 percent of Fairfield County households spend more than a third of their income on housing.
Creating ADUs will help alleviate those cost burdens, according to RPA. Fairfield County has the highest rate of income inequality of any metropolitan area and is one of the most racially segregated places in the United States, according to RPA, and ADUs provide housing options.
Sara Bronin, who founded Desegregate Connecticut, a group that advocates for equitable land-use policies, testified in favor of the ADU law, saying “these small, independent living units cater to seniors, young adults and multigenerational families.”
ADUs “are a free-market housing solution that enables the creation of new units without transforming existing neighborhoods,” Bronin said.
Maybe in little towns, but not in cities, said Mike Battinelli and Steve Garst, who head the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition.
“The people in Hartford don’t realize the implications of adding an apartment to every house,” Battinelli said. “I live in Glenbrook, which has a lot of illegal apartments. You can’t find a place to park.”
Illegal apartments are so common in Stamford that they occasionally show up on real estate brokers’ Multiple Listing Service, Realtors have said. Single-family homes have been divided into apartments, converted to boarding houses, and offered as lodging for Airbnb travelers.
“People buy houses, add one or two units, and rent the whole thing,” Battinelli said. “If I put an apartment on my house, I’m going to want top dollar for it. Hartford passed this law under the guise of creating affordable housing, but that is a fallacy.”
To his point, the law says municipalities cannot require that ADU rents meet affordable housing requirements.
Debate around the law was so controversial that some of the teeth were pulled. The final version allows municipalities to opt out by Jan. 1, 2023.
To do that, the municipality’s zoning board must hold a public hearing and then a vote. An opt-out needs a two-thirds majority to pass. It then must go to the municipality’s legislative body – Board of Representatives, Town Council or equivalent – where it also must be approved by a two-thirds vote.
Garst said keeping the law will mean “chaos” for Stamford.
“We already have a crowded school system, and five school buildings that have to be rebuilt,” Garst said.
Developments that are planned or under way will add about 1,500 apartments in the coming months, he said. “How are the schools going to handle all this? We’re getting maxed out.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, vice chair of the Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee, which would consider an opt-out, said houses are carved up into apartments citywide. Her district, the East Side, has a particular problem, Sherwood said.
“We have tons of problems in residential areas because we already have too many accessory dwellings. The possible effects of this law are so far-reaching that the idea that we wouldn’t opt out is alarming,” Sherwood said. “This has gone on for decades and city administrations have been tone deaf. People are desperate for someone to put their foot down.”
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes, the committee chair, said it would be smart for Stamford to clarify its own ADU policy.
“We may need to spell things out – if you want an accessory apartment, here’s how you do it. That’s better than the state coming in and saying everybody can have one,” Bewkes said. “One thing is for sure – enforcement is lacking in Stamford. That’s a problem.”
The committee has a big vote coming up in May on widespread changes to zoning regulations, he said. After that, he would like to get state legislators and land-use attorneys before the committee to see what the ADU law means for Stamford, he said.
“I want to get both sides of the story,” Bewkes said. “My opinion has not formed one way or the other.”
Except for one aspect, Bewkes said.
“None of this is affordable,” he said of ADUs. “The notion that any of this is affordable is ridiculous.”
That’s true, said Ben Trachten, a land-use attorney with Trachten Law Firm in New Haven, which recently loosened zoning regulations to allow people who occupy and own one-, two- or three-family houses to create ADUs without going through the zoning board or adding parking space.
“It was proposed as creating affordable housing choices, but in reality it will be no different than any other market-rate housing that comes online in terms of price,” Trachten said. “We were already creating ADUs every month through the zoning process, and it was working. People were utilizing existing zoning regulations appropriately in houses that could support additional density.”
Trachten, like Bewkes, said he is concerned about enforcement. Who will check to see whether ADUs are created only in owner-occupied homes?
“That’s a great question. Nobody knows,” Trachten said. “There’s a limited staff and no enforcement mechanism that I know of.”
It’s a case of “incomplete planning,” he said.
“The unintended consequences of this are going to be significant,” Trachten said. “Eventually we will have a lot of interesting living arrangements that were never envisioned by the planners who thought they were doing something to ease the housing shortage.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sara Bronin founded Desegregate CT, but is no longer leading the nonprofit.