A housing equalizer or neighborhood destructor?
In-law units: Towns have until 2023 to decide on legislation
STAMFORD — Single-family houses filled with middle-class homeowners are an image of American life replicable almost anywhere. But in Connecticut, where the cost of living is 27.7 percent higher than the national average, that vision sits beyond the means of more and more residents.
A bill passed by Gov. Ned Lamont in June — backed by housing and urban planning advocates from the region — put forth a partial solution to the climbing costs of housing.
Experts call them accessory dwelling units or ADUs, but they're also called granny flats or in-law apartments. They can be basement apartments, attic apartments or separate buildings like a pool house. But no matter the name, “the structures are secondary units to a primary residence on a property," according to the
nonprofit Regional Plan Association. ADUs have a private kitchen, bath, bedroom and living space. In some cases, ADUs share a roof with the primary residence, as with converted spaces like basement and attic apartments, but they're fundamentally separate homes.
House Bill 6907, which faced intense pushback and extensive revisions before reaching the governor's desk, legalizes ADUs statewide on existing singlefamily lots. The law also limits how many parking spaces municipal zoning authorities require are built with new construction.
But the law also provides an escape hatch for municipalities unwilling to comply.
With a two-thirds voice from the local zoning board, any community can override the new rules. Some housing organizations, like regional initiative Fairfield County's Center for Housing Opportunity, unsuccessfully rallied against the opt-outs.
Legalizing ADUs in Connecticut, according to a new study from the RPA, will create a steady source of new housing over time, something the group argues is essential for the state. RPA's models show that "With new ADUs and conversions, Fairfield County could see an additional 40,000 housing units over the next 20 years," which it describes as an 11 percent increase over current housing stock, especially
in areas with robust existing public transit infrastructure.
Under more restrictive housing rules, RPA estimates that Fairfield County would create about 16,000 new ADUs.
The changes could be most noticeable in communities like Stamford, which are relatively well-served by public transit and have a critical mass of residents. According to the latest U.S. Census data, some 135,000 people live in the city limits.
"Out of the 23 localities in Fairfield County, it is the one that has the largest stock of single-family residences," the study's coauthor, Marcel Negret, said. "It has over 22,000 singlefamily residences."
Coincidentally, Stamford banned accessory dwelling units before House Bill 6907 became law.
Some housing advocates and researchers like RPA posit that creating a bigger housing stock reduces the price of housing overall. They also tout it as a mechanism for increasing housing choice.
If the average singlefamily home in Fairfield County sells for $1 million according to Sotheby's International Realty, advocates say, it effectively prices most people out of the housing market.
"The lack of housing diversity points to the need for more housing that meets the needs of more people at different incomes, stages of life and abilities, strategically targeted in ways that support the people who need it the most," wrote RPA in its study.
And the Biden Administration agrees with this philosophy.
"The large and longstanding gap between the supply and demand of affordable homes for both renters and homeowners makes it harder for families to buy their first home and drives up the cost of rent," the White House said in a fact sheet in September. "Higher housing costs also crowd out other investments families can and should make to improve their lives, such as investments in education."
On top of that, the federal administration called exclusionary housing rules, like tight controls around building ADUs, "one of the most persistent factors depressing the supply of housing" before calling on local zoning authorities to "address zoning policies that have historically locked families out of communities and continue to limit housing supply."
Not all land use experts are as enthusiastic about the wholesale expansion of ADUs as advocacy groups like RPA.
Ben Trachten, a New Haven-based land use attorney who regularly helps homeowners navigate the approval process for ADUs, urges municipalities looking to overhaul their rules to move forward with caution.
"I love the idea of accessory dwelling units," he stated. "It's just got to be done in a thoughtful way."
Trachten contends that New Haven already creates accessory apartments through existing ordinances, and that letting them pop up in every singlefamily
neighborhood "ignores the fabric of cities."
"Some people want to live on a quarter-acre lot and have a garden and have quiet and not have to struggle for parking," he said. "People pay a premium for that. Otherwise, you're left with the city with nothing but multi-family housing, which will just push people out of cities, people who are looking for a kind of borderline urban-suburban experience."
Instead of depressing the housing prices by creating more stock, Trachten favors implementing social programs that promote "highincome skills."
Even Negret cautions that ADUs can only be fully effective when combined with other policy interventions. He argues that creating 40,000 new homes is only possible with adequate "technical and financial assistance for homeowners."
But a lack of resources isn't the only caveat at play. Though House Bill 6907 makes ADUs legal, the opt-out provision presents a potential barrier.
Even if communities
don't outright ban ADUs, some advocates maintain that regulatory barriers can keep them from being truly useful.
"You do see that some of the suburban towns have allowed them, but they've allowed them subject to various restrictions that hinder their effectiveness," Desegregate CT founder, lawyer and architect Sara Bronin told The Stamford Advocate. Many towns require special approvals for ADUs. Others force the units to be owner-occupied.
Bronin, who Biden nominated to chair his Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, added: "Some towns, for example, have a requirement that allowed them to be built, but only if they're for the elderly. They allowed them to be built, but only if they were for a family member. So what that does is it constrains the type of people who might be able to live in an accessory apartment."
Bronin points to California as a powerful example of what fully embracing ADUs can achieve. Between 2016 and 2019, the state saw an 11-fold increase in ADU permits after adopting less restrictive regulations.
"If you look at Connecticut's housing market, it's in some ways very similar to California," she added. "California's housing market is highly regulated and has significant constraints on the number and types of housing that can be created."
And within California, some cities have adopted the types of technical assistance programs that the RPA study advocated to encourage ADUs further. For example, a Los Angeles city initiative "pairs older adults with homeowners willing to provide a stable home by offering their accessory dwelling units as rentals." According to the city's ADU accelerator program, homeowners get benefits like "qualified tenant referrals, tenant case management, and stable rental payments" in exchange.
Based on the explosion of ADUs in California, Bronin said RPA's estimate on how ADUs could change the housing landscape is "reasonable," if not "conservative." The study also is "very optimistic" that homeowners will understand the advantages ADUs could bring to the larger community, Bronin said.
Whether Connecticut will embrace ADUs, limit their implementation or ban them outright will play out in the next few years — every town in the state has until January 2023 to decide on how it will react to the new legislation.