‘Gently’ increasing density with granny flats and more


I am stuck on housing these days — more specifically, housing that is varied, affordable and not the single-family homes that predominate in our neighborhoods.

Lansing (like many other cities) contains a demographic mismatch, with single-family zoning covering 83% of Lansing’s residential districts while only 40% of households consist of single families, i.e., parents and their children under 18 years of age. 

Last month, I wrote about boarding houses as one of several different shared housing options that can help build density “gently,” as planners describe it. Boarding houses, along with co-ops, co-living spaces, duplexes and quads, are being supported by forward-looking cities around the country to help ameliorate low housing inventory and a lack of affordable rentals. 

Often included in this roster of shared-use strategies are ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units, sometimes called granny flats. Generally 600 to 1,000 square feet, they can be freestanding or attached to the main house. They are often a garage or basement build-out. And in some parts of the country, there is a genuine frenzy to build them.

In 1965, in Auburn, Michigan, my Uncle George and Aunt Alvina built a small apartment and connected it to their farmhouse by a breezeway.  My grandmother Clara spent her last decade in that little accessory unit, welcoming daily visits from her half dozen grandkids.  My grandmother loved having her own cozy space while enjoying the peace of mind that comes from having family only a shout away.  

Today, like my grandmother long ago, increasing numbers of down-sizing boomers are choosing to live in such units with their children in the main house. This has sparked a whole new acronym: PIMBY, or Parents in My Back Yard.

 Another common scenario is one where an older couple builds an ADU on their property and rents it out for income or perhaps to house a caregiver.  At some point, the couple might move into it themselves while renting out the main house.  However it is utilized, an ADU can enable elders to stay in the neighborhood they love while perhaps bringing family or caregivers close.  

Given this, it is not surprising that ADUs are enthusiastically supported by AARP, which has helped 17 cities pass pro-ADU legislation over the past two years.  In a recent New York Times article, “Senior Housing that Seniors Actually Like,” writer Paula Span wrote, “Ten states and the District of Columbia, as well as many municipalities, have adopted or revised laws to encourage A.D.U. construction, reducing barriers like zoning, parking restrictions and onerous approval processes.”

By the way, it is not only seniors on fixed incomes that are interested in ADUs. Enterprising younger homeowners are expressing interest in building a cottage in their back yard to boost income and help pay the mortgage.

Speaking of cottages, we have a model cottage community just south of East Michigan Avenue, where local builder/craftsman Dave Muylle has been developing Cottage Lane for over a decade.  Each of six 1,000-square-foot buildings (akin to the largest-sized ADUs) feature craftsman design themes and are situated on an urban site created by combining five typical parcels. The arrangement allows each highly energy-efficient cottage to take maximum advantage of the shade, view and breeze. Dave, who lives at Cottage Lane, was way ahead of the curve, recognizing early on that smaller homes, particularly those built around a shared courtyard in a walkable and connected neighborhood, would appeal to aging boomers and others. 

 The time he spent applying, advocating and educating city staff for variances, special use permits, site plan reviews and waivers would have discouraged someone less visionary and resolute than Dave. While there is growing interest in small houses and ADUs, they are often discouraged, as is the case here in Lansing.

It needn’t be this hard.  Across the country, communities (e.g., Ann Arbor) are addressing housing inventory shortages, the need for affordable rentals and the mismatch between today’s demographics and available housing by encouraging the building of ADUs and small houses.

In some cities, the support goes beyond removing legislative barriers. For instance, a housing nonprofit in Los Angeles called LA-Más realized how daunting building even a small structure in one’s backyard might be for residents and so launched the Backyard Homes Project. They forged a partnership with the city and proceeded to work with interested homeowners to select an appropriate design (from one of several templates prepared by a local architect), secure funding from one of two partnering financial institutions, hire a general contractor (a non-profit builder eager to work on ADUs as an affordable housing strategy) and interact with the city on permits and inspections. In exchange for having LA-Más hold them by the hand throughout what is usually an arduous process, homeowners agreed to keep rent affordable (Section 8) for five years, after which they would have the option of raising the rent to market rate. So far, 200 homeowners have applied to be part of the program.

Let’s bring this issue home.  ADUs are technically not allowed in Lansing.  Apparently, some decision-makers are concerned that, if approved, residents will be running extension cords from the main house to their garage and calling it good. Clearly, if ADUs are eventually allowed in Lansing, they will come with strict guidelines that govern square footage, placement on the lot, utility hookups and construction quality. For those concerned about a tsunami of ADUs coming to their neighborhood, keep in mind that still-steep building costs are likely to slow things down. Unless, of course, we follow the example of cities like  Sacramento, which is waiving or discounting permitting fees for ADUs, providing permit-approved designs and generally encouraging lower-cost pre-fab construction.

As noted in last month’s column, Lansing planners are continuously reviewing zoning issues. If you would like to see the city consider allowing more ADUs and other forms of shared-use housing in our neighborhoods, contact Andy Fedewa, prinicipal planner for the city.  Andy is genuinely interested in residents’ views about how Lansing might “gently” and steadily increase the range of housing options available to meet the needs of Lansing’s rich demographic mix. 


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