September 19, 2019

Stepping Up to the Plate: Housing Solutions Right in Our Backyards

Guest Column
By Gary Howe | Feb. 3, 2018

“One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.” ― Michael Lewis, Moneyball

Getting to first base is critical to winning: That’s a fundamental lesson learned through analysis of baseball stats in the 2011 film Moneyball. Teams can chase home-run hitters and speedy base runners all spring long, but if they want to win, their players must get on first base. Consistently.

Many cities are beginning to do the math and are realizing the strength of the incremental, base-on ball in terms of housing solutions. These places, Frankfort and Traverse City among them, are realizing the benefits of small, efficient new homes right in people’s backyards. They’re called Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and they’re growing in popularity nationwide. An ADU can be built above a garage, as a freestanding cottage, or attached to homes.

Coast to coast, cities with severe housing issues are benefiting from this low-impact method of increasing housing options. ADUs provide housing for a population often left out of the mix — renters. This solution pans out so well, California and New Hampshire even require that cities allow ADUs, and both have passed state laws that require a streamlined permitting process. These secondary homes are promoted by organizations like the AARP and government agencies like U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. ADUs aren’t a panacea for the country’s housing issues, but they certainly are an elegant and increasingly popular solution. 

Of course, building an ADU is only an option for those willing and able to build and manage them. But these humble base-on balls are part of any good housing strategy and allow communities to reap multiple benefits. These benefits are clearly demonstrated by the coolest American ADU dweller, Arthur Fonzarelli, who moved into the Cunningham’s ADU on Happy Days, giving ADUs their nickname, “Fonzie Flats.” ADUs create economic, social and environmental rewards for everyone.

Economically, ADUs create housing at affordable price points near employment and business hubs. With $0.00 in land-acquisition costs, Fonzie Flats clear a major obstacle to housing in places like Traverse City where land values are so high. ADUs are built where infrastructure already exists, and so they eliminate the need for expanding public investments to accommodate growth. A healthy ADU market also creates well-paying construction jobs and new, non-traditional developers who are connected to their communities.

For renters, ADUs expand options for housing size and rental rates. A significant number of ADU owners, at some point, rent to family and friends, bringing them the joy of free or reduced rent. And crucially, ADU owners can generate wealth to supplement income, pour back into their homes, pay taxes, or create a self-financed retirement fund.

Socially, ADUs help meet affordable housing goals without requiring tax dollars —instead, they actually increase taxable value. They also help meet the demand for the missing-middle, or middle-income housing that is more clustered than detached single family homes while still being compatible and in scale with traditional neighborhoods. By gently adding affordable options within the existing social framework, ADUs provide practical, inclusive choices for the rental market. 

They also provide opportunities for homeowners to downsize without uprooting from their community. And, going back to the Fonz, they create mutually beneficially friendships between tenant, landlord, and neighbors. Imagine having a dogsitter right in the backyard! 

Environmentally, ADUs help address the region’s changing demographics. Fewer people are living together, and the region’s density is decreasing while the size of homes continues to grow. ADUs offer a hidden, low-intensity opportunity for increasing a city’s population base while reducing sprawl and car dependency. Pushing housing further and further away from employment hubs works against home sustainability and efficiency, both environmentally and economically. A common affordability guide that aims to measure the true cost of housing holds that the combined cost of housing and transportation should be at or below 45 percent of the household budget. ADUs make this math possible, and these tiny homes also have a relatively small footprint throughout their lifecycle, using less energy for heating and cooling.

When we honestly face up to the impact that lack of housing options has on our regional workforce, we clearly see that it’s a drag on everything else. The lack of housing depresses the local economy and reduces opportunities for businesses to thrive. Lack of a diverse housing market also makes it difficult for current residents to remain in their community throughout life changes. 

ADUs can help mitigate these problems and keep everyone in the game — perhaps by encouraging citizens to step up to the plate and help get us all home with their turn at bat. 

Gary L. Howe is a Traverse City a former City Commissioner and Planning Commissioner in Traverse City.  He is a freelance photojournalist and community development consultant with a strong interesting in equitable housing, transportation, and design of public spaces. 



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