Living Small

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Let’s talk about ADUs. This scary-sounding acronym shortens the even more frightful Accessory Dwelling Unit, which sounds like a truly evil machine for living. The truth is, these plucky little buildings or basement apartments are nothing to fear; they have many positive attributes. They come in many varieties. Some are over garages, in basements, abut alleys, side streets, or common patios, but all are small, permanent, and address a necessary and currently absent housing need. As the Anchorage Assembly considers a revised ADU Ordinance, expanding the available lots and zones in order to increase their deployment, I want to defend ADUs and hopefully dispel or explain some common conceptions. Additionally, I want to explore the market forces creating the demand for smaller living, and the requirements of living smaller.

First, the rumors. ADUs are not Tinyhouses. Technically, these trendy trailer-sized structures on impermanent foundations are illegal, as most are “off the grid”, and not technically an accessory structure. Nevertheless, there are many of them scattered around the Muni: I have the photographic evidence. ADUs are permanent, secondary, and independent from the main house. They have separate utilities and entrances. There are two types of ADUs: attached and detached. Along with many others, I assume that all ADUs are separate buildings, but a basement apartment or addition can also be ADUs. Land Use Code limits the sizes of ADUs, as well as æsthetic requirements. Generally, DADUs do not detract from the character of the neighborhood, and apart from requiring an additional parking space look and act like a shed. They add density, but conform to the required setbacks and characteristics of the neighborhood.

ADUs add density to popular areas of town, stabilizing property values and maintaining existing building stock. Instead of demolishing often historic houses to build multi-family buildings, ADUs can increase the housing without appearing to add density along the street, all while furthering the character of the neighborhood. They can be for-profit rentals that provide struggling families extra income, allowing families to remain in the neighborhood they love. They create stable growth in neighborhoods and have high returns on investment.

Alternatively, many older homeowners prefer ADUs, especially DADUs, as they can move into them as they seek smaller, more accessible dwellings. They can stay on their property well into their old age, renting out their large house or having a family member move into it. They enjoy the yard space, the independence, and the decreased maintenance. Often cornerstones of their communities, these individuals can stay in their neighborhoods as they age in grace. On the other hand, couples with children or students returning from school can have all the amenities of neighborhood living, with yards, independence, and community. Adult children can rent the ADU in their parents’ yard as they pursue jobs and families. Young individuals with disabilities can enjoy the freedom of independence of a separate living area while being close to a caretaker. In Portland, the greatest uses of ADUs are first, housing family members, second, long-term rentals, and finally, Airbnbs.

ADUs are small houses. Gather-round, kids, and let Uncle Connor tell a tale of how Americans used to live. In the middle of the 20th Century, American homes were smaller than they are today, and families were larger. As the world changed, and Americans’ values and aspirations modified, homes got larger, and families got smaller. However, today the trend is tracking back towards smaller houses, because we have small families. Older adults want to downsize and younger professionals seem to value location and yard space more than floor area.

Although 900 sf, the maximum size for ADUs before the assembly, seems small, many historic homes in Anchorage are as small. These early bungalows, cottages, and cabins were homes to families of four or five, and had two or three bedrooms and a single bathroom. Living in an ADU is not much different. Prospective owners and dwellers must modify their mindsets regarding the notion of a house. Everything must be smaller: the bedrooms, the bathrooms, kitchen, appliances, and closets. Because there are fewer, rooms have more than one use. Although it is difficult for homeowners and realtors to understand, the refrigerators, ovens, stoves, and laundry machines must be smaller. Modern conveniences like five-burner ranges and automatic dishwashers will not fit in ADUs. Those that inhabit little houses must learn to live without, and reevaluate how increased human interaction and time for self-reflexion (dishwashing) outweigh mechanical convenience and efficiency.

Contrary to many thoughts, however, the small size of an ADU does not translate into reduced cost of construction. The price-per-square-foot increases because the ADU has everything that a full-sized house has, but with less floor area. The financing and construction of ADUs is often prohibitive for many families. Those with excess capital can pay for them, thereby increasing their wealth and adding to economic disparity in many neighborhoods. Nevertheless, there are innumerable benefits to having an ADU. They can provide affordable housing, so long as property owners take the right steps, and banks and governments incentivize affordable financing structures. I hope we see ADUs in the future in Anchorage. They renaissance of dry-cabin living in Fairbanks illustrates the enthusiasm behind living small in the North. Let us keep our neighborhood characters by using our large lots productively without demolishing existing buildings. We can house low-income families, relatives, or provide short-term rentals for tourists, all of which benefit our city as a whole. And trust me: it will take more than a few ADUs to make Anchorage into Portland. We are quite safe from that.

I am taking an hiatus from writing for the next several weeks as I return to school, and I plan to reconfigure the website as well. Until next time, keep the faith, my loves.

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