Granny flat, in-law suite or accessory dwelling unit: Slowly but surely, these standalone homes, known by many names, are starting to be built in backyards in Arlington County.
“These are not tiny homes,” said Michael Novotny, the owner of Backyard Homes, which builds accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. “These are real, high-functioning, high-performing homes that you can move into and you can live very comfortably in.”
ADUs, which can take the form of a basement or attic apartment or standalone structure, are built on existing properties but are separate from the primary residence. They have been billed as a low-cost way to boost affordable housing stock.
The County Board first approved standards for these buildings in 2008, and last amended those standards in May 2019 to encourage more construction. From when the changes took effect in July 2019 until January of this year, the county says it has approved applications for 57 accessory dwelling units.
As of 2019, Arlingtonians living on land zoned for single-family homes can build detached ADUs on their property without first seeking county permission. Previously, homeowners could only build such a unit inside their house or convert an existing outside structure into one.
New ADUs have to be at least 5 feet away from the property lines, and on corner lots, 5 feet from the side yard line and 10 feet from the rear yard line. To be used as Airbnb or VRBO units, owners must apply for an accessory homestay permit.
Of the 57 applications approved since July 2019, 22 were for new detached dwellings, 24 were for attached dwellings and 11 were converted from existing buildings, said Jessica Margarit, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.
She cautioned that ADUs alone cannot solve Arlington’s lack of housing options.
“Accessory Dwellings can add to the variety of housing options that are available in Arlington, but are not intended as a stand-alone solution to Arlington’s housing shortage,” she said. “The county is exploring a range of ideas to address housing supply and housing affordability through the Housing Arlington initiative.”
Local developers and housing experts say that 57 units since 2019 is a small number compared to where ADUs are flourishing: in Los Angeles County and Humboldt County in California, and the cities of Seattle and Portland. They attribute Arlington’s current pace to barriers in county policies and financing hurdles.
“The biggest current barrier in Arlington is that the county has an owner-occupancy requirement in place,” said Emily Hamilton, a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “It creates barriers to homeowners who want to add one.”
Local homebuilder Classic Cottages is no longer just building large, custom homes — a new subsidiary will now build a high-end “backyard cottages” as well.
Responding to Arlington’s recent loosening of rules on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) — small structures built in backyards, also known as “in-law suites” — Classic Cottages (an ARLnow sponsor) launched a new venture called Backyard Cottages.
“The ability to now legally add a Backyard Cottage creates a unique opportunity for Arlington County single-family home residents to create a flexible, separate living area,” the company’s website says. “There are many benefits from investing in a Backyard Cottage, including long-term rental income or flexible space to serve immediate or future needs.”
Backyard Cottages has partnered with URBANEER to offer a 510-square-foot ADU model (pictured above) to Arlington residents who want additional living space on their property, starting this spring. URBANEER’s lead investor is Raul Fernandez, who is part of the ownership group for the Washington Capitals and Wizards.
Supporters of ADUs tout them as a way to “fight against the national housing crisis” and provide additional, cost-effective homes in existing neighborhoods. Critics say ADUs, should they become more widespread, could result in trees being cut down, overcrowding and additional traffic in neighborhoods.
It has been a slow start for ADUs in Arlington since county code was first changed to allow them. From 2009-2017, only 20 ADUs were built. Backyard Cottages is banking on loosened rules and more attractive building options spurring a local boom in ADU production.
“There is an immediate need for new, affordable housing stock in the D.C. area, and we see this detached ADU sector as a large, new opportunity to help serve that need in this region for years to come,” said Backyard Cottages CEO Pierce Tracy. “The URBANEER 510 model will be unlike other ADU options on the market. Our ability to showcase one of the first units built in the country… will provide an opportunity for our local residents to see the innovation and quality of these units first-hand.”
“For homeowners, these ‘Backyard Cottages’ help with affordability by providing rental income, or can be used for a family member to live in,” he added. “The flexibility of uses provides value to the homeowner, as family’s needs will change over time.”
Pricing is expected to be finalized in March and will vary depending on site conditions and options selected, a Backyard Cottages spokeswoman said.
Many Arlington homeowners can now build backyard cottages, thanks to a vote from the County Board.
Board members unanimously voted to loosen zoning regulations on so-called detached “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) during their Saturday meeting. The vote came after a contentious discussion with residents who said they feared the impacts of greater density and fewer trees in their neighborhoods.
“I am very pleased to support this motion for the benefits I think we’re going to see,” Board member Erik Gutshall said. “In my view the benefits far outweigh the potential impacts. To me it’s about housing. Period.”
The newly amended zoning rules allow Arlington homeowners to build detached ADUs on their property without first seeking county permission to do so — as long as it’s a one-family property. Previously, homeowners could only build an ADU inside their house (such as an English basement) or convert an existing outside structure into one.
Now, homeowners can build an ADU on an interior lot as long as the structure is at least 5 feet away from the property lines. ADUs built on corner lots must sit 5 feet from the side yard line and 10 feet from the rear yard line.
Previously, the County Board debated whether to allow 1-foot setback distances, but members ultimately nixed the idea, citing privacy concerns between neighbors and the fact it would only increase the number of ADU-eligible properties by 2 percent.
The exact distance didn’t matter to Urban Forestry Commission member Phil Klingelhofer, who said Saturday he had “serious concerns” about allowing any detached ADUs because laying sewer lines and footings anywhere could hurt the county’s tree canopy coverage.
“I want to make sure that we’re not… losing the forest for the trees,” Board member Katie Cristol replied. “Nationally, the biggest driver of emission and therefore climate change is sprawl development.”
Previously, several members of the activist Arlington Tree Action Group cited concerns about ADU construction killing trees and adding impervious surfaces to the county, which is already at a higher risk of floods.
Among the opponents was former County Board member John Vihstadt, who said the measure was part of a bigger mismanagement of density and natural resources.
“We must do better with managing our growth,” he said.
County Housing Planner Joel Franklin said since Jan 1, 2018, the county has approved 10 requests to build ADUs, three of which were converting existing structures into detached backyard cottage-style units.
ADUs are residential dwellings built on existing properties that are separate from the primary residence, like a basement apartment or a standalone structure — sometimes called a “granny flat.”
The County Board first approved standards for accessory dwellings in 2008. The Affordable Housing Master Plan in 2015 urged the creation of more ADUs as a low-cost way to boost housing options in Arlington. Regulations were loosened in 2017, but those changes only impacted apartments created within single-family homes, like in a garage or attic.
Staff at the May 6 Planning Commission meeting said there have been 10 new ADUs approved in Arlington since Jan. 1, 2018, demonstrating that there is some local interest in these types of residential units.
At that time, staff had recommended ADUs with a 1-foot side and rear setback from the property line, but the Board rejected it. Now staff is recommending a 5-foot setback, which they say is enough to mitigate the impact on a neighbor’s property but gives the homeowner enough flexibility within their own property.
Staff estimated between 37 percent and 44 percent of lots in Arlington could accommodate a detached accessory dwelling.
“The proposed zoning ordinance amendments would enable the construction of new detached accessory dwellings and reduce barriers to the conversion of existing accessory buildings into accessory dwellings,” staff said in a report. “The proposed amendment balances design flexibility, privacy and separation concerns, and the county’s housing goals.”
The project has attracted some concerns from both sides of the discussion. At the Planning Commission meeting, a local resident, whose accessory dwelling permit was denied last year, said he was excited for the new ordinance, but was frustrated that ADUs were subject to regulations like annual inspections.
Meanwhile, earlier discussions about ADUs exposed concerns from some residents that the new buildings could increase density and crowding in residential neighborhoods and have negative impacts on trees, stormwater management, noise, privacy, traffic and parking. Concerns were also expressed about ADUs being used as short-term rental units offered through services like Airbnb.
Photo via Arlington County
Arlington officials now look set to further loosen rules around the creation of “accessory dwelling units” sometime this spring, changing some zoning standards to allow more property owners to build the homes on their land.
County staff are now circulating a draft policy recommending that local leaders allow property owners to build the homes, commonly known as “mother-in-law suites,” with a five-foot setback from the street and property lines.
The County Board has long sought to see more people build “ADUs” around Arlington, viewing them as low-cost way to beef up the county’s housing options. Officials have become especially interested in the homes as they’ve debated ways to improve access to “missing middle” housing, or homes that offer rent prices somewhere in between new, luxury apartments and subsidized affordable homes.
The Board worked in 2017 to loosen regulations on ADUs and expand their creation in Arlington, but those changes only impacted apartments to be created within a single-family home, like in a garage or attic. The rule tweaks also allowed property owners to convert existing detached buildings on their lots into ADUs, but they did not allow anyone to build new ADUs unattached to other buildings on the property.
This latest proposal would change that. County staff examined the potential for one-foot, five-foot and 10-foot setback requirements, and they settled on the middle option as the best way to balance competing priorities.
“The five-foot setback balances privacy and separation concerns, design flexibility and the county’s housing goals regarding increasing housing options,” staff wrote in documents presented at an open house earlier this week.
Staff estimate that altering the setback requirements in that way would allow the owners of 42 percent of all homes in residential zoning districts to build new ADUs. They expect that a five-foot setback would allow some space between property lines and ADUs, and create enough room for direct sunlight to flow into all buildings on a given property.
Officials declined to side with a one-foot setback requirement, noting that it would allow for considerably less privacy, with buildings right up against property lines. Yet they found that it would only slightly increase the number of properties where ADUs could be built — 44 percent of residential properties would be eligible, staff estimated.
They also found that buildings so close to property lines are subject to more stringent fire safety-related building requirements, whereas buildings five feet away are not, “potentially decreasing the cost of construction for the owner.”
As for the 10-foot setback option, staff found it would substantially decrease the percentage of eligible properties — they calculated about 37 percent would qualify — while also creating the potential for buildings on sites to feel more clustered together, creating “the perception of greater massing on the site.”
It helped, too, that staff found that other, similarly sized localities around the country use the five-foot setback standard.
Staff found that Charlottesville, Seattle, Santa Cruz, California and Los Angeles County all use a similar guideline — only Portland uses the 10-foot standard, while no other localities staff examined use the one-foot setback. D.C., however, allows ADUs to be built right up to the property line, as the city has gone through its own efforts in recent years to expand access to the homes.
Staff plan to convene a series of additional meetings on the setback proposals in the coming weeks, with plans to send them to the Planning Commission for debate by May 6. The County Board could then take action by May 18.
After months of work, Arlington officials are gearing up to advance a new round of regulatory changes designed to encourage the creation of accessory dwelling units around the county.
The county plans to hold an open house on the new regulations tonight (Tuesday), specifically on policies governing how far the homes can be set back from the street.
Commonly known as “ADUs,” or “mother-in-law suites,” the homes can include everything from basement apartments to those located above a house’s garage. The County Board passed a series of revisions to Arlington’s ADU regulations in 2017, in a bid to prompt more people to create those units and beef up the supply of reasonably priced homes in the county.
Those changes were primarily targeted at allowing homeowners to more easily create ADUs within existing structures, rather than building new ones. The rules changes also allowed property owners to create an ADU in an existing structure detached from a single-family home, like a garage, but they could not build any new structures on properties for such a purpose.
Still, the Board vowed to subsequently consider rules changes allowing people to build free-standing ADUs on properties. The homes are broadly seen as a key way to provide “missing middle” housing, or homes that fall in between luxury apartments and subsidized, affordable homes, and advocates have long championed additional ADU rules changes.
But, to allow for any new construction, officials would need to change the “setback” requirements, which stipulate how far the homes can be located from the street. County Manager Mark Schwartz has been developing proposals for such rules changes, but has yet to unveil them in a public setting.
That is set to change later this afternoon. The exact shape of the proposals remains unclear, however — a county spokeswoman could not immediately provide details on the proposed regulations. Michelle Winters, the executive director of the affordable housing advocacy group the Alliance for Housing Solutions, also said she was unsure when the county will release the details of the proposal publicly.
The ADU meeting is set for the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd) in conference rooms C and D from 4-8 p.m. Any zoning changes discussed there would likely need to be scrutinized by both the Planning Commission and County Board before they go into effect.
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Flickr pool photo by Michael Coffman
The Arlington County Board voted 4-1 at its Tuesday meeting to loosen the rules around homeowners adding “accessory dwelling units” to their properties.
The revisions adopted by the Board would, among other things:
- Put no limit on the size of an ADU located wholly within a basement
- Require that an ADU take up no more than either 35 percent of the combined floor area of the property, or up to a maximum of 750 square feet
- Allow detached ADUs in existing accessory buildings (like a garage) and assess more options for setback requirements for new detached accessory dwellings
- Remove the annual limit on the number of ADUs that can be created in the county
- Require any requirement for the owner to occupy the property, but if the owner does not occupy one of the dwellings, the entire property may be occupied by no more than one family
Only about 20 ADUs — defined as a second place to live on a property, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since 2009.
A proposal to relax rules in the county’s Zoning Ordinance had been under discussion since earlier this year as the county looks to encourage more ADUs, also known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law suites.”
“The ordinance we passed in 2008 failed to generate accessory dwellings,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette said in a statement. “We are committed to creating more affordable housing in our County, and to making it easier for Arlingtonians to age in place. An accessory dwelling could create an additional income stream for those on fixed incomes. These revisions will give homeowners more opportunities to create accessory dwellings, while maintaining the character of our single-family neighborhoods.”
Board member John Vihstadt voted against the plan, citing “anxiety” from residents worried about neighborhoods being taken over by ADUs, as well as the worries of some about the impact on trees, stormwater management and other environmental aspects.
During their deliberations, Board members wrestled with how to direct County Manager Mark Schwartz to study requirements for new detached buildings that could be built to house an ADU. Existing structures are allowed to house ADUs right away.
Vihstadt tried to widen the study beyond setback requirements — how far back the ADU should be from the edges of the property — to look at building height and other aspects, but that brought opposition from Fisette.
“It seems to me you’ve opened up a lot more conversation here that will become far more complicated in the days ahead,” Fisette said, urging his colleagues to keep things simple and just study setback requirements.
“Just because a policy is simple to understand doesn’t make it any more sound than if it’s more complicated,” Vihstadt responded. “These are important characteristics that are taken into account in Arlington and elsewhere.”
Board members voted to direct Schwartz to only study setback requirements, and he is expected to provide his findings to the Board in the coming months. Members agreed that needs more work before a final decision can be made.
“Certainly, I think the desire to make sure we are working with homeowners to allow existing buildings to be used for this purpose makes a lot of sense,” Board member Christian Dorsey said. “But moving forward with new buildings, I’m not sure we’ve considered all options available to us to account for the different uses that we are entitling compared to when the Zoning Ordinance was created and as it’s been refined over the years.”
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A plan to make it easier for homeowners to add an “accessory dwelling unit” to their property could be set for an Arlington County Board vote as early as next month.
The proposal has been under discussion since earlier this year as the county looks to encourage more ADUs, also known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law suites.”
Only about 20 ADUs — defined as a second place to live on a property, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since the ordinance first came into effect in 2009. Local advocates have previously said that relaxing regulations could help ease the county’s lack of affordable housing.
“While accessory dwellings will not alone solve the housing affordability issue, as the Plan notes, it is another tool to provide a typically lower-priced housing alternative,” staff wrote in a report on the proposal.
Staff said they are proposing the following revisions to the ordinance on ADUs, “in order to increase opportunities for residents to add accessory dwellings, while maintaining the residential neighborhood character.”
- Allow for ADUs in detached buildings (like a garage)
- Increase ADUs’ maximum occupancy from two to three
- Increase the maximum square footage from 750 square feet to 1,000 square feet for a basement ADU
- Remove the minimum lot width requirement and area requirements
- Remove the requirement that a resident must live in a home for one year prior to applying for an ADU
- Remove the annual limit of 28 new ADUs in the county
Staff recommended that the following requirements remain largely unchanged:
- Owner occupancy requirement
- Parking requirements
- Compliance requirements
- Design requirements, although some revisions are proposed to allow for additional flexibility
On Saturday, the Board will decide whether advance the plan for public hearings at the Planning Commission on November 6 and a hearing and vote at its November 18 monthly meeting.
(Updated at 10:20 a.m.) Homeowners could find it considerably easier to add an “accessory dwelling unit” to their property under changes set to be made to the ordinance in the fall.
Only 20 ADUs — defined as a second living space with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since the ordinance first came into effect in 2009. Advocates have said they can help ease the county’s lack of affordable housing.
Staff is recommending that the Board allow detached ADUs, set back from the main house, and bump up the maximum occupancy from two to three. Currently in Arlington ADUs are only allowed within a single-family home.
At a work session Tuesday with county staff, Arlington County Board members debated various other recommendations, focusing in on a few.
Board members discussed staff’s recommendation of maintaining the current cap of ADU approvals at 28 a year countywide. Chair Jay Fisette and member Christian Dorsey suggested removing the cap altogether.
“Even at the likely installation rates, we’re not talking about a big impact on our community,” said Dorsey. “And who’s to say that if the 29th application is really the ideal, textbook accessory dwelling location and circumstance, we have to say no because we’re going to cap it? … It just really seems insane.”
But others were not so sure about removing the cap. Board member John Vihstadt suggested looking into capping new ADUs by civic association or neighborhood to prevent a concentration in one place, something others were happy to go along with in lieu of abolishing the cap altogether.
Joel Franklin, a housing planner at the county department of Community, Planning, Housing and Development, added that staff will undertake an annual survey to try and find any issues that may arise.
The Board also explored raising the maximum number of people allowed to live in an ADU. The current maximum is two, with staff recommending that be increased to three, but several wanted more work to be done to explore whether that limit could be raised further.
Vice chair Katie Cristol said consistency is key, and that it becomes difficult when “governing the number of people in a bedroom.” But Vihstadt and Fisette were not so sure, and inclined to stick with the staff recommendation.
“It’s one thing to stay one or two nights in a crowded hotel room when you’re on vacation with the kids or friends or whatever,” Vihstadt said. “It’s another thing to have that crowded condition on a monthly or long-term basis.”
Staff suggested various rules for the units, including that their front doors can be on the same side as long as they do not face, and that exterior stairways must not face the street, among others.
Those rules are designed to protect the character of neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. County staff members will continue to study the various policies governing aesthetics, they said.
“This is really a significant body of work. This is a use that I think we should be welcoming in our community while being cognizant of impacts on neighborhoods and protecting and planning against them,” said Cristol. “I would hate to lose this opportunity in any house or lot because somebody’s front door is placed in the wrong place.”
A slight change to the parking requirements for properties with ADUs has also been proposed.
Staff will compile the results of the survey on accessory dwellings this month, then finalize its recommendations. The Zoning and Housing Commissions will examine staff’s plans, with the Planning Commission and County Board expected to take final action in November.