Originally published in Agora, the Urban Planning & Design Journal at the University of Michigan.
Rent in Ann Arbor ain’t cheap. In 2014, median gross rent in Ann Arbor was $1,012, compared to the median of $788 in the state of Michigan. To address this housing affordability issue in the city, the Ann Arbor Planning Department, in coordination with the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, are exploring an amendment to Ann Arbor’s accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance.
An accessory dwelling unit, sometimes referred to as a “granny flat,” is a second, smaller unit that can be developed on a homeowner’s lot. A property owner can choose to develop an ADU out of an existing single family house (from the basement, attic, or addition) or as part of an accessory structure, such as a loft above a garage.
Currently the Ann Arbor zoning code allows accessory dwelling units as a special use requiring a permit, with the requirement that no rent be charged and the occupant be a family member of the primary householder. Following the lead of cities across the country like Portland, OR, Santa Cruz, CA, and Grand Rapids, MI, Ann Arbor is investigating loosening up these restrictions to allow property owners to charge rent for ADUs and getting rid of the family member requirement. Ann Arbor also added that no parking spot was required for an ADU renter if the unit was located within ¼ mile of a bus stop. The city is also considering a cap to number of ADUs permitted per year.
Planners Network got involved with the issue in May 2015, working with affordable housing and homeless advocates to demonstrate student support for accessory dwelling units. Luke Norman, a second-year MUP at the time, organized for a few homeless men that he worked with to come to Taubman and share their story. After asking us to join them in support of ADUs, a group of about 30 students attended a City Council meeting where we all stood in unison to show the city we believed ADUs were a necessary step for achieving housing affordability in Ann Arbor. The city decided to allot $25,000 of its budget for further research into expanding the ADU ordinance.
This year, Planners Network invited Teresa Gillotti of the Washtenaw County Office of Community & Economic Development to campus to speak to students and faculty about the issue. Gillotti put the accessory dwelling unit ordinance amendment proposal into context by providing an overview of the economic and housing disparities that exist in Washtenaw County. Expanding the ability for renters to access ADUs is a part of the strategy developed by the Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis study published at the beginning of 2015.
Support for the ordinance amendment in the Ann Arbor community has been mixed, and lively. At the community meetings Planners Network attended, residents voiced concerns about the potential for the amendment to increase the number of renters–or students–in their neighborhoods. Others expressed doubt that the ordinance would do much to achieve affordability in the city, especially if the city cannot enforce a price cap. With strict stipulations that no more than two people live in each unit and maximums on the size of ADUs to keep rent down, rent could still be high. Additionally, an ADU would not be an option for families, a key demographic that could benefit from lower rents.
It’s possible that renters couldn’t help but feel discriminated against in a conversation dominated by homeowner’s grief about losing the “character” of their neighborhood. Homeowners implied that renters would increase unwanted density and noise, and that the city’s enforcement was never adequate to assure homeowners this wouldn’t affect their quality of life. However, some homeowners were grateful for the possible ordinance change because it would allow them to move their aging parents within close reach and/or add supplemental income through renting an ADU on their property.
Ann Arbor has had a long history of discussing the benefits and challenges of ADUs. The topic comes and goes in popularity every few years, but we hope this time there is enough support to make it a lasting fixture in the city’s ordinance.
For more information on the proposed accessory dwelling unit ordinance amendment in Ann Arbor, refer to this project page. A public hearing will be held by the Ann Arbor Planning Commission on Tuesday, April 19 at 7pm in the Council Chambers at City Hall. Planners Network will be in attendance, and we hope you will be too!