Join Club

Progressive Voice: Accessory Dwelling Success Stories

Lisa NisensonProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By: Lisa Nisenson

Last week, former State Senator and Arlington County Board member Mary Margaret Whipple kicked off Affordable Housing month with a Progressive Voice column advocating more housing options, such as introducing small multi-family dwellings and accessory dwellings (ADs). In making the case, Senator Whipple cited the benefits of housing variety, while acknowledging concerns about how new housing types fit into existing communities.

Of the expanded housing options, accessory units such as backyard cottages and in-law suites, have the greatest near-term potential to add lower-cost housing options across the County.

Backyard cottageIn 2008, Arlington updated codes and regulations for accessory units, though homeowners and construction companies still face code barriers that outweigh the benefits of constructing ADs. While safety — such as fire codes — drives many of the requirements, other elements related to parking and design deserve closer scrutiny.

The stated purpose for these elements is largely to lower impacts on surrounding properties, though it is unclear (1) whether the impacts exist to the degree anticipated and (2) whether the required design requirements effectively prevent or reduce impacts. Given the housing pressures on an increasing number of Arlington residents, our entire community needs to come together on a platform of “what works” rather than expansive code written to anticipate and regulate every “what if.”

Fortunately, other cities have adopted — and fine-tuned — programs that offer ideas for shaping policies, programs and design elements for neighborhood-friendly accessory units. Here is a snapshot of how programs are shaping up:

Portland, Oregon: In general, Portland has the most ambitious AD program with lower parking requirements and permit fee reductions. While most cities with ADs require owner occupancy either in the main or accessory unit, Portland eliminated this rule in 1998. Three years ago, the state surveyed homeowners to determine (1) how ADs are used and (2) information on concerns such as parking.

The results? By and large, ADs are rented for out for extra income, typically to a single occupant. For parking, one-third of units report using the street (for the other units, 20% of dwellers do not own a car or homeowners provide off-street parking). Portland also places a high value on design and quality.

Seattle, Washington: Seattle has taken a more incremental and targeted approach to rolling out its AD program. Like Arlington, Seattle manages parking (though based on proximity to transit instead of on-street parking capacity), minimum lot sizes and design standards. Also like Arlington, Seattle’s housing crisis is driving a renewed effort for promoting accessory units through regulatory reform and incentives.

Novato, California: Novato created a new class of units: Junior Accessory Dwelling Units. These units are modified interiors within existing homes to create a separate living space. The city waives requirements for parking and fire codes while making special provisions for building small-scale kitchen facilities.

As it responds to escalating housing costs, Arlington should consider other trends affecting housing. New mobility options, notably bike share, car share such as Car2Go and on-demand ride hailing — such as Uber — are helping drive down car ownership rates and the related need for parking.

Also, an increasing number of retiring baby boomers are finding decreasing options for “aging in place” and “aging in neighborhood.” Yet there are few downsizing options other than apartments, and restrictive rules prevent the use of space in existing homes to provide a downsizing option while giving homeowners income to cover taxes and maintenance.

A big wild card is the availability of short term rentals — like Airbnb — that were barely on the radar in 2008, but are now reshaping parts of the real estate and hospitality industry. Here in Arlington, our County Board is considering the legal and tax framework for short term rentals. The Virginia General Assembly is also expected to revisit statewide legislation that could restrict local governments’ ability to regulate short-term rentals.

Currently, Arlington’s code makes building guest houses for temporary guests easier than building accessory units for long-term, stable renters. Without new rules, the County may be in a position where economic incentives favor “Airbnb cottages” over new, stable housing units.

As Arlington implements the Affordable Housing Master Plan and rules for accessory dwellings, look for discussions on allowing detached dwelling units (as opposed to attached or in-house units currently allowed), fire code requirements, site requirements such as lot coverage and enforcement.

If you are new to the topic of ADs, the website Accesorydwellings.org is an exhaustive resource, with links to a design gallery, research, policies and case studies.

Lisa Nisenson is Founder of the urban planning startup GreaterPlaces, named a “Top 10” resource by the planning authority Planetizen. She holds positions on the American Planning Association’s Sustainable Communities Division and Smart City Task Force. She is a long time Arlington civic advocate from Lyon Park.

Image: Raleigh, N.C.

Recent Stories

It’s going to be a windy Saturday. The National Weather Service just issued a Wind Advisory for Arlington and other parts of the D.C. region, in effect until 6 p.m….

Good Friday evening, Arlington. Let’s take a look back at today’s stories and a look forward to tomorrow’s event calendar. 🕗 News recap The following articles were published earlier today…

McLean-based Golden Boot Soccer has been a leader in youth soccer skill development and fun for nearly 30 years, and this summer they’re bringing their popular summer camps back to…

Arlington County police are investigating “extensive” graffiti, including a racist word, on the roof of Dorothy Hamm Middle School. Families were informed of the vandalism via email yesterday. The principal…

It is the decision of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) Washington Headquarters Services (WHS) to implement the Proposed Action: the 2024 Pentagon Reservation Master Plan Update (Pentagon Master Plan) as the framework to guide future decisions regarding land use and infrastructure at the Pentagon site and Mark Center. The Pentagon Master Plan aims to provide an update to the existing conditions at the Pentagon and Mark Center and presents projects and revisions to land use categorizations that will address the specific needs to reduce the Pentagon’s environmental impacts and advance sustainability, security, and resilience. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review has been completed through preparation of a Final Environmental Assessment (EA) to evaluate environmental impacts arising from implementation of the projects. WHS has concluded that no significant impacts to the human or natural environment will result from implementation of any projects, and recognized negative effects will be reduced by adherence to standard best management practices, applicable permit and consultation conditions, and standard operating procedures. This decision is further documented in the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) signed on March 20, 2024.

This notice announces the availability of the FONSI to implement the 2024 Pentagon Reservation Master Plan Update.

For further information and to request a copy of the Final EA or FONSI, please contact Brian King, Environmental and Sustainability Program Manager, WHS/Facilities Services Directorate/Standards and Compliance Division/Environmental and Sustainability Branch; (703-614-3658 or [email protected]). Please include “Pentagon Master Plan Final EA and FONSI” in the subject line.

Submit your own Announcement here.

The 3rd Annual Arlington Fair Housing Conference will feature Thomas Silverstein, renowned Fair Housing expert and Associate Director of the Fair Housing & Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Come hear the latest news about fair housing enforcement, policy, and programs within Arlington County, Virginia, and across the country! Our expert panelists and guest speakers include fair housing advocates, elected officials, and government officials tasked with advancing housing equity at the local, state, and federal level.

Arlington has made substantial strides in advancing housing equity and improving fair housing policy with the adoption of the Regional Fair Housing Plan in 2023. Come learn what’s next to fight housing discrimination, incorporate equity for marginalized populations in our housing policies and programs, and increase awareness of fair housing rights under state and federal law.

We’ll have updates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing federal rule, a panel discussion of fair housing progress at the General Assembly and across Virginia, and a panel of local experts discussing the progress Arlington has made and what remains to be done.
Please RSVP in advance to ensure you receive your free lunch at the conference. Free and open to the public.

Read More

Submit your own Announcement here.

National Chamber Ensemble – Concerto Celebration

We invite you to join us for an extraordinary evening of music at our Season Finale, “Concerto Celebration”! Enjoy several masterworks as NCE performs two famous concertos in an intimate chamber music setting, opening with a delightful work by Chevalier

“The Secret Garden”

The St. Andrew’s Players Present “The Secret Garden”

Adapted from the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett by Erin Detrick

A time-honored classic, “The Secret Garden” is the story of two indulged and neglected 10-year-olds. They are miserable souls from different

×

Subscribe to our mailing list