Back yard ‘granny pods’ address a need
Remember the above-garage apartment Fonzie rented from the Cunninghams on TV’s “Happy Days”? Today that would be termed an “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU), or a small residence with a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom located on the same single-family lot as a larger house.
Accessory dwelling units have been around for centuries, starting perhaps with carriage houses. In recent years, guest cottages, “she sheds” and in-law suites — all different types of ADUs — have been gaining popularity in the area, as many communities are looking for affordable and flexible housing options.
One type of ADU is nicknamed the “granny pod.” An example would be the MedCottage, designed almost a decade ago by Virginia-based company N2Care and the Virginia Tech College of Engineering as a temporary family healthcare structure.
Each MedCottage has a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette along with a variety of safety features, making them suitable for older adults who might need special care but still want to live on their own.
Some MedCottage safety features are low-tech, such as safety rails and special rubber floors to minimize injury from falls.
Others rival state-of-the-art hospital rooms, including floorboards that illuminate a path from the bed to the bathroom, cameras that alert a caregiver if the resident falls, and a computer system that reminds forgetful individuals to take their medication from a dispenser. There’s even a toilet seat that can track a person’s weight, temperature and urine content.
A growing trend
In its 2018 Home and Community Preference Survey, AARP found that 84% of people over the age of 50 said they’d consider creating an ADU in order to provide a home for a loved one in need of care.
So why aren’t there more of them?
First, they’re relatively expensive. Detached ADUs often exceed $150,000 after installation.
In addition, residents frequently have to contend with residential zoning codes that typically allow only one home per lot.
The city of Baltimore is considering proposed legislation that would allow ADUs. A bill currently before the Baltimore City Council was introduced last year by Third District Council member Ryan Dorsey.
The bill, now before the council’s Land Use Committee, defines an auxiliary dwelling unit as a detached single-family dwelling that is located on the same lot as a principal structure, and whose gross floor area may not exceed 750 square feet.
According to Dorsey, a few community meetings on the ADU bill took place not long after the legislation was introduced in early February last year.
The initial community meeting was held by the city’s planning department. Dorsey then hosted two other sessions to hear directly from his constituents.
“We got a mixed bunch of feedback and have not moved beyond that,” Dorsey said.
Families support the idea
Some Baltimore residents were in favor of the plan, such as those who want to be able to allow their grown children to live on their property in ADUs.
Dorsey said he heard from residents who had children or grandchildren who are recent college graduates interested in moving back to the area.
“This would be a good fit for them, as kind of a next stop, like post-college,” Dorsey said.
Older residents who want to age in place also supported the idea. Dorsey calls older adults in Baltimore City “a key demographic for occupancy of ADUs.”
During the community hearings on ADUs, some older residents told him, “I don’t need this three-bedroom, two-story house anymore…but there’s just nowhere else in the neighborhood for me to go,” Dorsey recalled. He believes ADUs would give older residents the option to grow old in their own neighborhoods.
Then there are some third district residents who like the idea of allowing ADUs in Baltimore City as a way to diversify the housing stock. According to Dorsey, those individuals believe cities should allow more different types of housing to exist as a way to increase economic and social diversity.
“If this will help diversify the housing offerings, and diversify our community, and meet a need that might otherwise go unmet, well, we should help that to happen,” Dorsey said.
Objections to more housing
However, some Baltimore residents reject the idea of allowing small houses to be built because they don’t want them to proliferate, Dorsey said. He believes some of these individuals are wary of potential new neighbors.
“Some of [the objections are] pretty strongly or classically coded racist language,” Dorsey said. “Things like, ‘If you allow this, it will disrupt the stability of the neighborhood,’” he said. “Like the idea that if we allow the ADUs to exist, then suddenly they’ll be…in all the back yards at every house, on every block.”
Dorsey has no immediate plans to bring the bill up for a vote. However, he is contemplating more comprehensive housing legislation for the city of Baltimore that might include the concept of ADUs.
In the meantime, he hopes to have broader discussions about various ways to improve access to affordable housing. This would include making changes to Baltimore’s city zoning code as a way to remove barriers to affordable housing and housing diversification.
ADUs are just “one piece of a package that we could present that exhibits a larger vision for how we address the housing needs in the city,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey represents District 3, an area of single and semi-detached houses with grocery stores, transit access and what he calls “a growing interest in walkability and human-scale development along commercial main streets.”
Dorsey thinks allowing ADUs would enhance his district by attracting new residents.
“If we’re able to see ADUs develop in a way that can be priced appropriately as affordable housing, then we’re also creating an opportunity for people to move to an area of opportunity,” Dorsey said.
For a list of accessory dwelling laws in your area, visit accessorydwellings.org/adu-regulations-by-city/.