Vancouver updating rules for accessory dwelling units

Small places seen as way to help address housing shortage

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

Published:

 

If You Go

 What: Public open house on updating ADU standards.

 When: 5 to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 7.

 Where: Vancouver Housing Authority, 2500 Main St.

While accessory dwelling units are hailed as one way to increase the local supply of affordable housing, they’re rarely built in Vancouver. About 65 have been constructed citywide since 2000 and the regulations haven’t been updated since 2004, but city officials look to change that.

Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are small residential units located on the same property as a single-family home, either within the existing home or next to it. There are a handful of proposed zoning regulation changes that will be discussed at a public open house from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Vancouver Housing Authority, 2500 Main St.

Current rules require that ADUs be bigger than 300 square feet but smaller than 800 square feet or 40 percent of the main house. The proposed changes would allow ADUs to be up to 50 percent of the main house, so long as the ADU is less than 800 square feet. Another proposed change would allow ADUs contained within a basement to be larger than 800 square feet. And, ADUs could be smaller than 300 square feet if they still meet state building codes.

Would an ADU that small be considered a tiny house?

Potentially, said Bryan Snodgrass, the city’s community and economic development planner. Tiny houses could be ADUs so long as they’re secured, permanent facilities — not on wheels.

“You couldn’t just roll in a tiny house and call it an ADU,” said Snodgrass, who’s heading the effort to update ADU standards.

He said Vancouver currently has a mix of ADUs: backyard cottages, converted garages and basements, and apartments stacked on top of garages.

Right now, the owner must live in one of the units while the other is rented or otherwise occupied, and the owner has to live there at least six months out of the year. The city is considering changing those rules so either residence could be owner or renter occupied.

Making the construction of ADUs more flexible was one of the ideas that came out of the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force that met between May and December 2015. The task force encouraged the development of different types of housing, including accessory dwelling units, micro-houses and cottage or cluster housing.

As rents rise and vacancies remain low, ADUs are seen as a way to add housing in an area lacking buildable land. The cost to the city and the public is minimal, the task force’s report said. Even adding one unit would make all the difference for one household, the report said. This type of housing, however, is not guaranteed to be affordable in the private rental market and relies on investment from homeowners.

Snodgrass said ADUs can also meet the needs of people with special needs, seniors and young adults.

Yung Ting Engelbrecht, a man with autism and Down syndrome, lives in a 288-square-foot accessory dwelling unit that’s attached to his parents’ house in east Vancouver. The ADU was built in what used to be a vegetable garden on the side of the house and has its own entrance. Also, home builder Lennar constructs multigenerational homes where there are two homes in one house.

The week following the public open house the Vancouver Planning Commission will hold an informational work session. A public hearing open to public testimony is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 11 at Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St. The ideas will then be addressed in a Vancouver City Council work session on April 24, with another public hearing scheduled for later this spring. Contact Snodgrass at bryan.snodgrass@cityofvancouver.us or 360-487-7946 for more information.

Snodgrass said the city is recognizing that ADUs should be kept compatible with neighboring properties. He’s looking at how other cities are approaching this type of housing and integrating it into neighborhoods.

They’re common in Seattle, which is dealing with its own housing crisis. 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.