What do carriage houses, mother-in-law apartments, and granny flats have in common? Two things: they’ve been around a long time, and now they’re called Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). You may have lived over a garage or in a basement while you were in college, or waiting to buy a starter house, or because it was what you could afford. But Minneapolis, like some other cities, is taking a new look at ADUs as another way to increase the city’s “density” factor without occupying more land.
Since 2014, the city has had ordinances defining ADUs as separate living spaces as long as they have kitchens, bathrooms, and private entrances, even though they share the same lot as a primary residential house. The aim for the homeowner is usually to house family members and/or rental income; the neighborhood and city benefit by increased property taxes and the addition of more affordable housing.
Ward 2 City Council member Cam Gordon has proposed amending the ordinance that would, in his words, “Allow accessory dwelling units on non-owner-occupied properties. Currently, they are only allowed on properties with an owner-occupant. Under my proposal they would be allowed on any residential lot and would be considered an additional unit when determining if a lot had one, two or three units.”
The City recognizes three types of accessory dwelling units: Internal, such as a converted basement or attic; attached, such as an addition that shares a wall with an existing house, like an attached garage; and detached, such as a separate garage or other freestanding structure on the property, as long as it is smaller than the existing house. The city limits the height and square footage of detached ADUs, and the units are subject to all other applicable building codes.
The Family Housing Fund (FHF), a non-profit housing advocacy group, sees ADUs as valuable and affordable alternatives, and has published a handbook for people considering ADUs for rental income for property owners or “to provide multi-generational living options.” Sarah Berke, an FHF program officer, said her organization has provided more than 1,000 ADU handbooks to interested parties, and sees ADUs as a way to “gently increase” density in the city. FHF has partnered with Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services and Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity to develop cost models and gauge homeowner interest in ADUs.
Other cities, like Portland, Oregon, are actively pursuing ADUs, and FHF’s handbook says: “If ADUs became as common in the Twin Cities as they are in Portland, (about 1.5% of single-family lots), the region would create 11,000 new housing units.”
To the concern that ADUs might become Airbnb rentals, Berke said that short-term rental ordinances would apply. An owner who lives at the property, rents a room and stays at the property during the rental period would not need a license, but someone who rents an entire unit for less than 30 days and/or leaves the property during the rental period would need a rental license and would be subject to inspections and other ordinances. However, short-term rentals do raise the possibility of increased noise and traffic, and rents would not likely be as “affordable” as long-term rentals.
Sheridan neighborhood homeowner Dalton Scott recently submitted a permit application for a two-story structure on his property on 5th St NE that called for a living space over a three-car garage area. Because the height and footprint exceeded the city specifications, he requested two variances, which the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied. City planner Andrew Liska noted that there were no “practical difficulties or unique circumstances” with the property that would prevent complying with the ordinance, and with a larger than specified footprint, the applicant “was not proposing to use the property in a reasonable matter.” The ADU ordinance limits the size of accessory structures to 676 square feet (Scott’s proposal was for 774 square feet) and the Board said that the intent of the ordinance was to create and regulate a more uniform built environment for accessory structures. The board did say the proposal would not be detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public or of those utilizing the property or nearby properties.
While some might read this as a less-than-expansive view of increasing density through ADUs, the city seems to want a level of uniformity, especially if ordinance changes cause a surge in ADU proposals.
On Dec. 5, the Zoning and Planning Committee heard Scott’s appeal of the variance denials. He noted that that he had made multiple design variations, each time meeting a new roadblock with the code, especially with the footprint; the proposed building’s overhang and its exterior stairwell pushed the square footage over the maximum allowed. Scott said that the overhang was needed to avoid an office-style or micro-unit feel. Reducing the overhang and moving the stairwell inside would meet the requirement, but at the loss of living space and one of the three parking spaces.
Scott said, “Part of the plan was to have a parking space for each unit. I’ve gotten approval of the majority of my neighbors as well as my neighborhood council. This will provide a non-subsidized rental and help keep our neighborhood looking similar.” He added that he plans to occupy the unit when it is completed.
Addressing the issue of height, Scott said that the plans call for a “green” roof, with a foot of soil, greatly increasing the R-value and making the building much more environmentally sustainable. The roof would absorb rainwater runoff and have a pollinator-friendly habitat. Using an elevation drawing, Scott pointed out that his flat-roof design would be much shorter than the peak of a gable roof, actually reducing the shadowing effect. “I’m trying to make something that’s aesthetically pleasing and beautiful for the neighborhood, my neighbors, and for the environment.”
To a question from City Council Member Jeremy Schroeder about the building height, Scott said a reduction would hurt the possibility of the garage area being converted to livable space in the future.
Council Member Kevin Reich said, “This is in line with where we’ve been trying to push the envelope in the name of environmental sustainability. This project might not be an intentional partnership, but it’s an intuitive one; not where we are now, but where we hope to be. I think we have minimal trade-off here in the name of sustainability.” Council member Lisa Goodman said, “As a kind of leader of the Green movement in the city for many years, I think having a green roof on this building is a top priority. If this design had an allowable pitched roof, they wouldn’t have a green one.” Gordon added, “I think that this is a great example for all of us.”
A vote was taken, and the motion to allow the variances carried.
Below: Dalton Scott fought city hall and won, in his quest to build a living unit atop a new garage that could also eventually be converted to living space. The plan includes a roof that is shorter than the peak of a gable roof and better insulated by a living “green roof” with a foot of soil. (Photo by Mark Peterson)