November 26, 2013

Does your city allow you to build a little house in your backyard — an "accessory dwelling unit"?

Madison, Wisconsin does. Here we see a couple that has a house, and they're building a tiny house behind it, on the footprint of what had been a detached garage, 12 x 18. Then, they bring in tenants and make income for a while, and ultimately, as they age and no longer can or want to manage the big house, they move into the tiny house.
"We thought we might live in it when we're too old to live in the larger house... It's a way for us to stay in the neighborhood and live here."

"I've always liked the idea of living smaller and more beautifully... This idea is pretty neat."
So what do you think? Is this a great way to increase density in the city, build up the tax base, free people to make income from their property, provide appropriate housing for younger and older people, and boost the tiny house movement? Or is this a bad intrusion onto existing neighborhoods, pitting homeowners against each other?

I look out on our backyard and see 4 detached garages impinging on our view. Would we be worse off if those were converted into little houses? Put the cars in the driveways or on the street, and install little old couples or singles into those spaces. Or maybe Meade and I should build our perfect little dream house in our backyard, then sell the big house to new owners who will loom over us until we move on to the ultimate truly tiny house.

38 comments:

Hagar said...

We know you have children that may come home to roost, the way things are going.
Does Meade too?

Hagar said...

Maybe you two could live in the little house, and the kids could turn the big house into a Meadhouse commune of sorts.

MadisonMan said...

I've always liked the idea of living smaller and more beautifully

The idea of it. Says it all.

I've always like the idea of high speed rail.

I've always liked the idea of Free Health Care for all!

I've always like the idea of biking everywhere I go.

The execution of it, or the cost, not so much.

If she/they really and truly liked the idea of living smaller, they would have done so.

mccullough said...

Little House on the Slab

Ann Althouse said...

Why not just roll a trailer back there?

Because then the backyards would turn into a trailer park.

The idea may be: In the future, lots of people will need to live in trailer parks, but it will be necessary to deny that it's a trailer park. The rebranding is: tiny houses. But not like the tiny houses you've been seeing in the NYT perched on pretty landscapes. Packed into existing backyards. And once a few neighbors have done it, there goes the neighborhood. The nice old houses are now a facade for a trailer park, all crammed back in there.

Thanks for fixing our brains, Madison.

TosaGuy said...

They forgot Fonzie Garage in the definition.

ngtrains said...

This can easily lead to distraction of neighborhoods. large houses get subdivided into apartments. There is a reason for single family zoning vs multi family zoning.

STreets get crowded with cars as the number of residents increases. More traffic. more noise.

It can start with an 'in-law suite that becomes a rental unit as the in-laws move off.

Not a good idea to start.

surfed said...

We did that here in Jacksonville. Turned a three car garage in a stunning Arts & Crafts cum Steampunk 600sq ft mini living place. We'll rent out the big house and travel keeping and living in the small place. Spent more on the garage (by a large margin) than the large brick home cost in 1968.

tim maguire said...

I think it's important that we, and especially the government, have an opinion on how people use their storage spaces.

Sorun said...

"There was concern about a loss of privacy," he says. "Our hope is they talk to the neighbors and try to get a little more buy-in from the neighborhood."

I wonder how you get buy-in from opposing neighbors who have nothing to gain.

ngtrains said...

oops - destruction of neighborhoods

Ann Althouse said...

"I wonder how you get buy-in from opposing neighbors who have nothing to gain."

1. It's environmentally friendly.

2. It's a nice thing to do for older people.

3. It helps people and keeps the neighborhood diverse, with more eyes on the street and shared activities.

4. You could build one too.

5. It will make our block special and cutting edge, an architectural experiment. We'll be in the vanguard.

6. Nana will babysit and feed your cats, and Bubba will shovel your snow and take your dog for a walk.

Sorun said...

I lived in a very small house for a couple of years with a woman, 2 dogs, and 4 cats. It was a remodeled glorified storage shed. It went surprisingly well. The place stayed clean and didn't smell (honest!). We were ultimately chased out by a crappy heating system that got tiresome in the winter.

I now know I can confidently buy a tiny place for my retirement, as long as it's warm.

Henry said...

I had friends who build a large tree fort for their kids. A few years later a neighbor reported them for a completely unrelated issue (the neighbor thought they were building a chicken coop). The somewhat chagrined building inspector noted that they were not actually raising chickens. But, their tree fort was just large enough to be classified as a deck and it was too close to the property line. They spent a huge amount of energy getting a variance.

Cities are dense. That's the whole point. For all the zoning laws that let you control outbuildings (and chickens) you can't do anything to control having jerks as neighbors. You just need to get lucky.

traditionalguy said...

Many antebellum southern homes have just such outlying small living quarters, rows and rows of them.

The designer of his hilltop home in Charlottesville, Virginia also liked having a secret access from the big house into the small ones.

Seriously, the best solution IMO is a single level 2400 sq ft home with small yards. You must have dog room too.

madAsHell said...

I prefer to consider the one large house as two small houses.

....and yeah....Honey, don't touch my stuff!!

Terry said...

Ironically, the "tiny house" Ms. Althouse refers to may also be called a "long home".

Henry said...

I am curious about utilities. Cities have the advantage of a sewer system. Still, you have to run a line to the little house. That's a big expense. And does the little house have it's own electrical line or does it run off the main house? If it runs off the main house does its own panel? Another big expense. If you're running new lines for sewage and electricity, then the city is certainly in the position to say yea or nea.

In the country it's a septic system you need for your little house and that's it's own huge expense and permit-pulling hassle.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I had an e-mail argument about this very thing with a friend yesterday, about this NYT story. The gist of the story is that San Francisco is overrun with new tech millionaires who are ruining the vibe of the city, what with their "elite" cafes filled with people bent over their laptops, their Uber apps (honestly, who has a hate-on for Uber who doesn't hold a taxi medallion?), and their free Google shuttle buses that take them to and from Mountain View daily.

So I and my friend (who works for Google, and takes one of those shuttles to work herself) were talking about building codes. You have to understand here that "in-law apartments," as we call converted garages and the like out here, are basically illegal in SF, and the main reason is parking. Finding someplace to lodge your car is a serious problem in much of SF.

My friend was suggesting legalizing in-law units and what she called "infill housing" (encompassing what Ann was talking about -- new separate building, as opposed to garage conversions -- and also such things as jacking up an existing house and building a new lower story underneath it). She would relax building codes so as to require safe electrical wiring and earthquake safety and the like, but not necessarily (e.g.) ceiling height requirements.

I said, basically, well, fine, if you want to. But what happens if the government decides that your property would really be more productive if it housed more people, and went all Kelo on it? She said that allowing isn't the same thing as requiring, which of course it isn't, and we went round and round awhile.

But, yes, the main issue is congestion, traffic, parking. SF has ... well, I wouldn't say good public transit, but it's reasonably comprehensive. It might easily take you a couple of hours to get from Point A to Point B within the city limits on foot/public transit, but you can do it. Still, it's not like Manhattan, where the people who have cars generally garage them upstate or in NJ.

I guess I just don't know Madison well enough to know whether the car problem would be as huge as it is in SF.

surfed said...

Our Arts & Crafts cum Steampunk is in a beautiful urban core neighborhood area built in the late 1920's. Think La Jolla with more affordability. The little back house is situated on an alley which is good for extra entry and access. it shares utilities with the large front house. The big front house is just that, too big. Small is better.

Carol said...

It's fine if you realize that in another generation it will look like Hollowood or Pasadena..casitas behind cottages behind bungalows, all filled with strangers, cars parked all over and no one give fuck all.

The Drill SGT said...

lots of gilded age homes had "carriage houses"

though in my area, 10 guys named Juan would live there now...

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

surfed,

In Oakland, we lived for some years in a little house behind a big one, but the usual dynamic was reversed: The little one was a lot older than the big one. It was a clapboard cottage, turn of the 20th c. or before, and probably the original homestead on the property. It had its problems -- among which were rats, termites, pitiful water pressure, a clay pipe to the sewer that had fallen in due to tree roots demolishing it, and an assiduous but really cheapskate landlord who, yes, got the sewer line working, by having someone take a jackhammer to it, but, no, didn't really have a problem with the driveway being a rubble-filled open sewer for some months while he costed the various replacement options ...

Strelnikov said...

Well, of course it's ok for lesbians.

Is the government even allowed to tell them what to do? Sounds homophobic/genderist/uglist/etc., to me.

Victor Erimita said...

Portland, Oregon (of course!) has allowed accessory dwelling units for nearly 20 years. It has worked rather well. My career has been in land use and housing, and although there were trepidations expressed when the policy was new, it hasn't resulted in a lot of problems or complaints. Some use them as "mother-in-law" dwellings. Some to launch kids. Some rent them out. There are tight design controls. Some really wonderful and creative things have been done with the form.

Mary said...

Lol. I hope all 4 of those garages ... impinging... in your view, are soon filled with 4 leaf sharing, happily united lesbian couples, with purebred dogs, to keep meade company in the long afternoons when the professor is busily paid professing.

Maybe they could teach meade some handyman skills so he could build a lil house too. You could take in retired greyhounds, blind retired greyhounds even, and make extra money off that.

Be a neighborly neighbor in the progressive mad town tradition now... This is no hoosierville afterall.

Peter said...

Were fallout shelters illegal?

Or were they OK because no one lived in them?

FleetUSA said...

This regularly happens throughout Europe.

Mary said...

People forget that city estates were routinely chopped up to add new homes, that is why they are all crammed in overlooking 4 garages in the first place. Those big family city homes get split into units once you realize two people dont need all that house and families rarely are large enough to justify the need.

People who want big houses and privacy need to purchase enough surrounding land as buffer, which means forgoing neighborhood convenience in the city, Choose wisely, and no hatin on your fellow propery owners for their choices that differ from yours.

Besides, didnt your mother and father start out in a trailer park crammed all together. Dont be so snobby. Your house is really not all that.

rhhardin said...

It's a granny flat.

They let you move a trailer in for granny but it has to leave when granny does.

RecChief said...

our municipality doesn't allow such things. two houses on 1 lot? nope. makes for messy lot sizes down the road. you could have your property line redrawn, but that is subject to a minimum square footage rule for lot size, plus minimum set back rules for the buildings. not gonna happen here.

Blue@9 said...

"I've always liked the idea of living smaller and more beautifully

Ok, smaller I get, but "living more beautifully"? What does that even mean? What is preventing her from living more beautifully right now?

Auntie Ann said...

This story below is from about a year ago on the idea of a "Granny Pod": a small house built for the elderly, so a parent can live in the back yard, in their own home, with privacy and independence, but with proximity to family. These are built like assisted care units, with accessibility railings, and even medical monitoring equipment.

http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/granny-pods-debut-nursing-home-alternative-article-1.1208916

Levi Starks said...

Do as you please on your own property?
Absurd.....

SteveBrooklineMA said...

Well, I live in Madison and can't even put up a gazebo. Housing covenants.

Auntie Ann 11/26/13, 4:11 PM: Suggest this to mom.

The Godfather said...

This is all just basic land use regulation. How many dwelling units are allowed on a lot? Can the lot be subdivided (because if it can't, then the occupant of the "tiny house" has to rent the land and house from the owner of the "big house", or vice versa)? Are there minimum requirements for living space to qualify as a habitable building? Are separate utilities required?

I assume from the story that what this couple is doing complies with zoning (although there's some implication that perhaps they had to get some kind of variance). Zoning laws can be changed (usually prospectively only). If a lot of people start building tiny houses, that will increase density in the area, more traffic, more parking, perhaps more noise. If enough people object enough, they can get the ordinance changed to prohibit or limit new "tiny houses".

In Washington, DC where I lived and practiced for three decades, there are places like Georgetown that have lots of "English basement" apartments. Other areas, like Capitol Hill, have lots of carriage houses that become rental units. I don't know Madison, but I suspect that the same issues, political as much as legal, will crop up there.

The aesthetic issues are beyond my ken, but they will end up being subsumed in the legal ones.

Smilin' Jack said...

Packed into existing backyards. And once a few neighbors have done it, there goes the neighborhood. The nice old houses are now a facade for a trailer park, all crammed back in there.

Althouse goes all NIMBY on us.

Captain Curt said...

As some other commenters have noted, in California, at least, these are commonly known as "mother-in-law" cottages, and the source of many zoning disputes in older California cities where it is common to have a detached garage accessed from a back alley.

Many cities that try to discourage these as separate living units do so by forbidding plumbing in these units. A friend of mine who modified a garage into a separate unit for rental had the contractor put in plumbing, then wall it up in the back wall of a couple of "closets". Once the building passed inspection, the closets were turned into a bathroom and small kitchen.