Sweet on in-law suites

Accessory dwelling units seen as way to address local housing shortage

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



Accessory dwelling units in Vancouver

• Allowed on lots of at least 4,500 square feet.

• At least 300 square feet in size, not more than 800 square feet (not including an attached garage).

• Design and appearance must be consistent with the primary structure.

• Owner must live in one of the units while the other is rented or otherwise occupied.

• Owner has to live there at least six months out of the year.

Someone could mistake the small house off Daniels Street for a garage. And, actually, an old carport was torn down to make way for the 506-square-foot home.

It’s technically an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU. The detached home is being built next to the main house on the property, a 2,047-square-foot home originally built in 1916.

ADUs go by dozens of synonyms, such as granny flat, in-law suite, backyard cottage or, in this case, detached accessory dwelling unit. Sean Steinebach is close to finishing the ADU in Vancouver’s Carter Park neighborhood — the first one he’s ever built.

“It’s very similar to building an addition or a regular house. It’s a stick-built house, it’s just a little smaller,” said Steinebach, who’s been doing construction for more than 30 years. He runs HDC Renovations, primarily focusing on remodeling and additions. “One of the reasons I took this on is I wanted it to be in my portfolio, so people know I can do this.”

While ADUs may not be tough projects, they’re rarely built in Vancouver. Since 2000, the city’s permit office has issued 53 permits for ADUs. In two cases, the building permits expired. Compare that to the more than 300 building permits for single-family residences issued so far this year.

Right now, there are just two ADUs under construction. They’re both in Carter Park, and both will be rentals.

As rents rise and vacant, buildable land gets harder to find, ADUs present one possible solution to creating more housing in a city reeling from a lack of supply. Not all ADUs are detached; there’s a large home east of Officers Row that had an ADU built within it, and another nearby ADU is attached to the back of a garage.

Building an ADU should be simpler the second time around, Steinebach said, now that he’s more familiar with the city’s restrictions and regulations.

“We went down and talked with them about three or four different times to make sure that this is OK to build here,” Steinebach said. “They approved it. We went ahead and had the drawings done, had the engineering done, went down and submitted (plans). About four weeks later, we had permits.”

The most obvious restriction is that the home and ADU have to match stylistically. They’re both slate blue with similar-looking windows and roofs. The ADU and the main home are spaced far enough apart that Steinebach didn’t have to build a firewall, a barrier used to prevent the spread of fire. The utilities are tied into the existing system, though the ADU will have its own shutoff. In the end, it’ll cost about $90,000.

Now that he has designed an ADU that checks off all of those boxes, Steinebach said he could recreate this same house. He’s inspired by shows like “Tiny House Nation” that promote building small, and has considered building his own tiny house on wheels when he’s not so busy.

Peggy Sheehan, Vancouver’s community and economic development program manager, said the city is looking at possibly changing the options surrounding ADUs and tiny homes to make them easier and more attractive to develop. Any changes will be presented to the city council next year, possibly in the first quarter.

Popular in Seattle

Dmitriy Manzhura has been building ADUs for a while, just not around here. The concept took off in Seattle, which is dealing with its own housing crunch.

The city allows detached accessory dwelling units, or backyard cottages, in single-family residential neighborhoods. In Seattle’s 49-page guide to building backyard cottages, they’re lauded as a way to prevent sprawl, increase property values, give homeowners additional income from rent and create more housing without changing neighborhoods.

After about a decade building in Seattle, Manzhura decided to bring the concept to Vancouver, which his cousin Ed Gavrish told him needed more rentals.

“There’s a lot of demand for rental properties in downtown Vancouver. They’re really hard to find,” said Gavrish, a broker with ReMax Equity Group. “And they’re becoming expensive.”

Manzhura, through his company Vast Homes, is building a single-family home and a separate 655-square-foot ADU stacked on top of a garage. They’ll be foursquare-style to blend in with the surrounding older homes.

This is Manzhura’s first local project, but he wants to buy more land, or tear down crumbling residences to make way for houses with ADUs. Many of the homes in this area sit on double lots that could fit an ADU, Manzhura said.

“Some builders don’t even know they can have ADUs,” he said.

The space on Washington Street used to be part of the parking lot at First Baptist Church. Manzhura plans to scoop up any more lots that the church sells.

Gavrish is helping him find buildable lots in west Vancouver near downtown. He’s already bought some spaces off Lincoln Avenue, but hasn’t decided what he’s going to do with them.

For now, Manzhura is focused on completing the Washington house, which he’ll live in once it’s done. He has to live there, according to the city’s regulations, to be able to rent out the ADU. If he ever wants to sell the homes, he has to sell them together because they’re part of the same tax lot.

The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, which studied the housing crisis last year, recommended that Vancouver consider removing the owner-occupancy requirement. The task force, comprising builders, city officials, property managers, planners and nonprofit leaders, also suggested developing stock plans for expedited permitting, waiving fees and removing parking requirements for ADUs.

Those changes could come up when the Vancouver City Council discusses accessory dwelling units next year.