What’s that in my neighbor’s backyard? More neighbors! – ADUs on the agenda

What’s that in your neighbor’s backyard? It’s an ADU, planner shorthand for planner longhand “accessory dwelling unit.”  It’s just a second, smaller dwelling on the same lot as a single family home.  It could be an apartment above a garage, a Tiny House in the backyard, or and addition to the main home.

 

Tomorrow, the Northfield Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on a revision to the Land Development Code which is intended to make ADUs easier to build in Northfield.

Status quo

Right now, ADUs are only allowed in Northfield above detached garages – like this one in my neighborhood:

Almost in my backyard: an ADU built under the current code

ADUs are permitted in residential zoning districts R1-4 and N1-2 (beige, yellow and orange below).

Northfield Zoning Map

 

But there are more regulations (but click for the ordinance text):

  • How many? One ADU per lot (and is included in the maximum number of units on a property – most areas allow 1, 2 or 3 dwelling units, so this is not a problem).
  • How big? Currently, the property property must have a minimum area of 8,000 square feet and the ADU must not exceed 864 sf and 24 ft high and must fit within the lot coverage (building area ratio) limits.
  • Where? The ADU must be part of a detached garage and at least 10 feet from the main dwelling.
  • Design, etc.: The ADU must have separate kitchen and bathroom facilities and must be compatible with the main dwelling and the neighborhood.
  • What about parking?  One off-street parking space in addition to required parking for the main dwelling must be provided.

Why change?

To name a single reason for the change, I’d say “To remove obstacles which make it difficult or impossible for property owners to improve their property.”

Why would property owners want to add an ADU? That’s not the City’s job to regulate, but the list could include:

  • Building an apartment for rental income,
  • Making a space for extended family whether simply for proximity, to provide care (whether eldercare, childcare or other care),
  • Aging in place by building an ADU to move into as children leave home and renting the main house for income while staying in the same neighborhood.
  • Your reason here…

For the City, ADUs tick several policy boxes by providing these benefits

  • Incrementally increasing density in existing (often high amenity, highly connected) neighborhoods
  • Adding housing with less environmental impact (smaller, on existing infrastructure, etc.)
  • Creating more affordable housing, so adding rental units would add to the overall housing supply (the affordability of each ADU would depend on its location and its features) and construction doesn’t require land acquisition.
  • Increasing housing diversity.
  • Implementing policies on Age-Friendly Northfield, Climate Action, Affordable Housing, and non-motorized transportation.
  • Incrementally walking back decades of single-family zoning
An ADW – accessory dwelling wing – which could be legal soon (Photo: accessorydwellings.org)

Reducing regulations helps get ADUs built. Consider the very different approaches taken by Minneapolis and Saint Paul: Minneapolis made it easy and 92 were built (through 2017 – including this one); Saint Paul limited location and regulated other features and one was permitted. Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle are also ADU standouts.  There are other factors which help spur ADU development, but the zoning code is the Planning Commission’s remit, so that’s where we’re starting.

This would fit in my backyard (Photo: ArchDaily)

What’s changing?

Read the marked up version of the ordinance for the complete text changes, but here’s the good bits

  • How many?  Still only one.
  • How big?:  Rather than 864 sf limit, the size is now proportional to the main dwelling at 50% of the primary dwelling or 1,000 square feet in size (whichever is greater) and 24 feet in height. So, if you have a 6,000 sf home, you can add a 3,000 sf ADU. On the other end, if you have a 1500 sf home, you may add an ADU up to 1000 sf.  Lot size requirements have been eliminated and ADUs are explicitly exempted from lot coverage requirements.
  • Where? Now ADUs are freed from above the garage and may be “added to, created within, or detached from a single-family dwelling” but still must be 10 ft from the main dwelling. Allowing ground floor or detached ADUs can make them more age-friendly or accessible, too.
  • Who? ADUs may be added to main dwellings which are not owner-occupied (i.e. adding a rental unit to another rental dwelling is permitted).
  • Design, etc. Compatibility requirements have been eliminated because “preserving neighborhood character” is often an anti-change, anti-renter requirement.
  • What about parking? No parking is required (it’s not prohibited, but simply left up to the developer to decide what’s needed) because it can add to the cost of the unit.
  • Plus, Tiny Houses on wheels may be ADUs if installed on foundations and connected to city services.
A tree house might be legal if it met the height requirement  (Photo BaumRaum)

What next?

Process: The Planning Commission holds a public hearing Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 7 pm in the City Council chambers to hear testimony (please come!), make findings of fact and recommend action to the City Council to amend the ordinance (or not amend it, but this is unlikely barring new information as the PC was united and unanimous in voting to send it to a hearing). The Council (probably in January) will vote to approve the first reading of the ordinance, then approve the second reading (where minor corrections may be made) and publication in the official newspaper.

But there’s more.  After this change is made, there’s still work to be done to fix the rental code. The rental code limits rentals to 20% of the houses in a single block in highly desirably, well-connected, affluent neighborhoods (like my east side neighborhood). The ADU revision is a positive step to let property owners decide how to use their property by adding units as they need or want to do so with benefits to the City, too. Amending the rental code will require a more direct conversation about housing with the people who are very concerned about what is happening in your backyard and its impact on their backyard.

My backyard. No ADU yet, but it’s under consideration

Tiny Houses need a much larger look

The Northfield Planning Commission took a little look at Tiny Houses back in January, but the city really needs to build tiny houses into the much bigger picture of housing in Northfield.

What’s a Tiny House? Tiny Houses are, of course, small houses. Typically less than 400 square feet, these small homes can be constructed in different ways, used for a variety of reasons, and placed in multiple locations/situations; this flexibility ties the zoning code (and building code) in knots. Here are a small variety:

Ecocapsule (Photo: New Atlas)
Tiny Shipping Container House (Photo: New Atlas)
A Tiny Neighborhood (Photo: Country Living)

Let’s simplify:

  • The City should not try to guess why people may choose to live in or build a Tiny House; there is no compelling government interest I can identify which requires regulating this.
  • Create a simple taxonomy of Tiny Houses:
    • houses on wheels which remain mobile and not connected to city services and
    • houses built on permanent foundations and connected to sewer, water, etc.
  • Decide whether Tiny Houses should be tightly regulated and allowed in a very limited way (if at all) or whether Tiny Houses are a housing choice which should be broadly available to anyone who chooses this type of dwelling (or chooses to build them to sell to others) and craft regulations which are simple and easy to navigate.

Tiny Houses are a problem

Right now, Tiny Houses are a problem because they cut across categories of regulations. Whether on wheels or permanent foundations, there is no regulatory place for Tiny Houses in Northfield.

Tiny Houses On Wheels are not manufactured homes which must be located in the R4 zone, but are somewhat more like transient dwellings “designed to be regularly moved on wheels” like campers or motor homes which can be licensed to be parked and occupied for no more than 30 days. Or, something more like the Temporary Family Health Care Dwelling without the use requirements about family and healthcare. I’m going to suggest we could license Tiny Homes on Wheels in flexible ways to ensure some accountability in time limits and location for a mobile dwelling, plus health and safety items without (like the granny pods) stipulating the reasons people might want to live in a Tiny House on Wheels.

A very colorful Tiny House on Wheels (Photo: The Spruce)

Tiny Houses on Foundations are permanent, but are they primary or accessory dwelling units?

  • As primary dwellings, their small size does not fit well with typical lot sizes and setbacks in residential areas (nor could two primary dwellings be on the same lot), would run afoul of the neighborhood compatibility rules for the R1 older areas, and we do not currently have a location where a cottage court or Tiny Subdivision with appropriately sized lots (or multiple dwellings on the same lot or small lots with shared common space) could be located.
  • As accessory dwellings they are not permitted anywhere in Northfield, since the only accessory dwellings allowed are as part of detached garages.
Cottage Square neighborhood in Ocean Springs, MS of repurposed Katrina Cottages (Photo: RJohntheBad)

Northfield’s current approach

The first stab at Tiny House regulation in the proposal presented to the Planning Commission is to add Tiny Houses as primary dwellings to the N2 Residential zoning district.

The N2 district will create a pedestrian-friendly environment, such as found in the R1 district, with strong neighborhood qualities, such as a grid-like street pattern, consistent block size, compact development, a range of housing types and architectural styles, street connectivity, sidewalks, and homes located in close relationship to the street.

This purpose statement suggests Tiny Homes as primary dwellings would be appropriate as part of that range of housing types and compact development. N2 areas are currently undeveloped, so there is no conflict with neighborhood compatibility standards or, more important, no conflict with existing neighbors of R1 (the older areas near Carleton and St. Olaf). This strategy is politically and technically easy; dropping a new column of small-scale site design into the code to be applied to as yet unplatted land provides for one place to build Tiny Houses or Tiny Subdivisions. This proposal is promising, but very limited.

Northfield Zoning Map (N2 zones are dark orange)

A more expansive approach

Following the guidance of the Comprehensive Plan and Strategic Plan which call for creating more affordable housing, workforce housing, senior housing, a range of housing types, more intensive development and removing regulatory barriers to building affordable housing. I’d call allowing Tiny Houses in Northfield an opportunity to add another tool to the housing toolbox which can be affordable, environmentally sustainable, and flexible for many types of residents.

Where should they go? 

In all low-density, primarily single-family zoning districts; these would include R1-B (older, grid-street neighborhoods near downtown), N1-B (most newer single family home areas), and N2-B (the undeveloped land to be more “R1-B-like”) where Tiny Houses would offer one way to add housing incrementally in older, desirable and well-connected neighborhoods, as well as planning for them in undeveloped places. So, I could build a Tiny House in my backyard in the R1-B district as an accessory dwelling unit to rent now or to move into and rent my primary dwelling if I would like to downsize or income needs change. Someone with a large or double lot could seek a minor subdivision to create a new Tiny Lot or two for Tiny Primary Houses. The HRA could build a new Tiny Subdivision in N2-B. And more, I’m sure.

Tiny Houses could be treehouses, which would really frustrate the zoning code (Photo BaumRaum)

The Strategic Plan, Comprehensive Plan and Age-Friendly Northfield initiatives (AARP supports Tiny ADUs) provide plenty of policy level support for more housing choices (at more price points) and permitting and encouraging infill development.

At the ordinance level, though, there’s trouble. What ordinances need to be changed or eliminated to make Tiny Houses easy to build?

  • Basics: Allowing Tiny Houses as a specific use in low-density neighborhoods and reviewing lot size and setback requirements to allow for smaller dwellings would be required.
  • Accessory Dwellings: Currently limited to dwelling units only as part of detached garages in residential zoning districts, Northfield would need to relax those requirements to provide for freestanding ADUs (and here’s a model code which allows for a range of ADUs which would accommodate Tiny Houses well or this one). The bonus for making these changes would be to allow for a range of accessory dwellings whether on garages, attached to primary dwellings, or freestanding units.
  • Neighborhood compatibility regulations for R1-B: In order to maintain neighborhood character, R1-B regulations include “compatibility” requirements where the “primary focus of these compatibility standards is to ensure that new infill development, redevelopment, or building expansion relates to the massing and scale of the surrounding structures.” Tiny Houses, mostly likely, would be out of scale with neighboring homes as primary dwelling units; accessory structures are exempt but ADUs are limited as noted above. I’d argue that regulations intended to preserve “character” can be code for protecting neighbors (often affluent neighbors) from what is seen as undesirable change.
  • Parking regulations: ADUs must provide one off-street parking space in addition to the two required for each primary dwelling (so, two spaces for a single family home, four for a two-family dwelling, etc.). Requiring two spaces for each single family primary dwelling Tiny House might also be counterproductive. Rather than requiring parking, leaving this decision up to property owners would increase flexibility and possibly reduce costs.
  • Rental code: Even if physical standards were changed, ADUs could be detached, neighborhood compatibility issues were resolved and parking was not a problem, the rental code could still be an obstacle. While the rental code exempts owner-occupied rentals (say, a rental apartment contained within the owner’s home), ADUs which are not part of the primary dwelling do not appear to be covered. The limit on rental licenses in low-density neighborhoods to 20% of the “houses” on a block measures the proportion based on a house as a “single structure containing one or more rental units.” Is a freestanding ADU Tiny House counted as a “house?”As with neighborhood compatibility standards, the rental code is another attempt to preserve neighborhood character in ways which discriminate against renters as “people not like us” in higher income neighborhoods (students, for example, or lower income families). Northfield city staff are already looking at this; the staff report addressing Tiny Houses states “Northfield staff are currently investigating changes to the rental ordinance as part of the strategic plan objectives on affordable housing. The current feeling is that instead of introducing Tiny Houses into the mix, Northfield might be better served by modifying the existing ADU standards to allow ground level development as part of a garage or as a free standing unit. We are also evaluating the impact of the rental ordinance on the Northfield housing market.” Indeed.

So Northfield, read the Plans and policies which call for more housing choices and really consider how to help Tiny Houses be one of those choices without fear of what the neighbors will say. YIMBY!

My Backyard (which has plenty of space for a Tiny House)