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New Haven Independent

New Housing Law Creates No New Housing

By Thomas Breen,

2023-03-15
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City of New Haven image A City Plan Department slide pitching the ADU law in 2021.

A law designed to help New Haven homeowners convert attics, basements and garages into apartments has not resulted in the creation of a single new place to live nearly a year and a half after alders adopted the legislation.

The law pertains to accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Back in October 2021, the Board of Alders voted unanimously to approve a zoning ordinance amendment that made ADUs for owner-occupants as of right in residential districts across the city. That law change allowed New Haveners who live in single-family, two-family, or three-family buildings to create a legal ADU without first having to go through the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), and without having to add an additional on-site parking space.

The Elicker Administration and alders championed the bill at the time as a step towards promoting small-scale residential development, creating more naturally affordable places to live, and providing enterprising homeowners with easier-to-access streams of rental income.

“If we adopt these changes, we can remove barriers to small-scale housing development and strike a blow against exclusionary zoning policies that have constricted the development of affordable housing for too long,” then-East Rock Alder and then-Legislation Committee Chair Charles Decker said at the time of the vote, which also reduced minimum lot sizes in residential zones citywide to 4,000 square feet.

Seventeen months since the law’s adoption, the ordinance amendment has not resulted in the creation of a single new as-of-right ADU, according to City Plan Director Laura Brown.

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Thomas Breen file photo City Plan Director Laura Brown.

“While there have been several variances approved by the BZA to allow for a residential dwelling unit to be located within an accessory structure,” Brown told the Independent, ​“no ADUs have yet been created under the new ADU ordinance.”

What went wrong? Why has this law failed to lead to the creation of any new housing so far? And what could and should be changed to make it work better?

Brown, land-use attorney Ben Trachten, and city Affordable Housing Commissioner Anika Singh Lemar all referenced the law’s owner-occupancy restriction when considering why this law has failed to create new housing. (While the final version of the law did win unanimous support from the Board of Alders back in October 2021, Downtown Alder Eli Sabin did at the time speak out and vote against an amendment imposing the owner-occupant restriction.)

“When the ADU ordinance was passed,” Brown said in an email comment, ​“the Administration and the Board of Alders viewed it as the first step in a potential multi-phase approach. There were some intentional initial built-in restrictions in the legislation, including the owner-occupancy requirement and the existing building restriction, to help ensure that as we made this new housing option available that ADUs would be built in a responsible and appropriate way.

“ADUs could be a more viable option to more residents if the owner-occupancy requirement was amended and if attached or detached ADU’s were permitted. In addition, while we can change zoning laws and practices, ADUs have to be financially viable for residents as well and financing an ADU to meet the requirements of the building code can be expensive and not something that all homeowners can afford – particularly with the high interest rates that have existed over the last year.”

Brown emphasized that ADUs are ​“still a relatively new option for residents and have the potential to grow in popularity as more people become aware of them.” She said that the city plans to step up public education around ADUs. In that vein, the City Plan Department recently launched a new ​“online ADU toolkit, which we created in partnership with the Yale School of Architecture. The website answers questions like, ​‘Can I build an ADU?’ and ​‘How do I build an ADU?’ and provides additional resources to try to make it as easy as possible for residents to learn more and consider them as an affordable housing option.”

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Laura Glesby photo Anika Singh Lemar: Owner-occupancy provision at fault.

Singh Lemar more directly singled out the owner-occupancy provision as a core flaw in the October 2021 law.

“It is not surprising that New Haven is learning from the failures of its poorly-designed ordinance,” she said in an email comment. ​“We have seen that across the country – cities like Portland and Seattle initially adopted ADU ordinances with owner-occupancy requirements, for example, and only saw significant ADU production after they later loosened those and other requirements. You can see a similar pattern at work in California, which eventually revised its state-level ADU protections after decades of local refusal to permit ADU’s, notwithstanding those state-level protections.”

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Thomas Breen file photo Ben Trachten.

Trachten, who spoke up frequently over the course of the ADU law approval process in 2021, recognized that the idea of allowing ADUs in all residential zones ​“seems like an easy way to increase density and develop more affordable options. In practice it hasn’t worked. Material costs have gone up. Construction financing isn’t easily available. Building code compliance is expensive because the same standards apply to an ADU as any other dwelling unit (as they should).”

Trachten also noted that the city’s zoning ordinance ​“already contains a conversion standard for larger homes in most residential zones to create additional dwelling units.” He said that his understanding from discussions with city Building Department staff is that roughly 50 new conversions take place every year under the existing ​“simple standards in the Zoning ordinance. There is a framework that works! These are typically 3rd floor or basement units in existing multifamily homes. Ive been in these units and they can be beautiful. Some are owner occupied, some are investment property.”

He compared the ADU law’s failure so far with a similar pro-housing-hopeful zoning amendment from a few years back, the Commercial Gateway District (CGD) rezoning on Whalley. ​“If the goal is to create the type of housing that everyone thinks New Haven needs, the simple solution is to allow conversion at a slightly higher density (maybe 800 SF of Floor area per dwelling unit) and not just in the Residential zones, but for smaller residential structures in the BA and IL zones as well. There are many multifamily houses in BA zones where maximal development of the lot would result in many more dwelling units but the investment isn’t financially sound. There should be a simple conversion mechanism for these properties too. These properties now need variances from BZA and/or special permits from the City Plan Commission which adds tremendous cost and time delays.”

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