They’ve been called “granny flats,” “carriage houses,” and “in-law suites.” And if discussions among the members of Minneapolis’ planning commission move forward, they could be an old-fashioned solution to the city’s modern urban issues like a ballooning population, limited affordable housing, and a lack of accessible senior living options. According to Tom Streitz, the city’s director of housing and policy development, expanding Minneapolis’ policy to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) is under active consideration for the first time in many years.
“It’s really trying to get at this multi-generational demand for housing that existed for a long time and then sort of went out of vogue. For lots of reasons it’s becoming more popular again,” Streitz said. “There are a bunch of demographic and other factors that are compelling us to look at this.”
The move would add Minneapolis to the growing ranks of communities giving these dwellings a second look in recent years. In Seattle, backyard cottages got the okay in 2009. Last year, legislation passed in Salt Lake City that allowed for ADUs within a half mile of local light-rail stations. And officials in unincorporated Johnson County, Kansas, approved new parameters for the units in March.
“People wanted to bring their parents to live with them or they wanted to bring their children back home,” said Dean Palos, Johnson County’s planning director. The new rules require that detached units (say, over the garage) be no larger than 900 square feet; one of the two residences must be owner-occupied; and the properties must be at least two acres to accommodate both structures. Architectural standards, too, were paramount in the deliberations. Accessory dwellings must mirror the primary structure in character and materials.
“I think in part because of the recession there’s a greater awareness that there’s a need for this,” said Palos. “There’s a better understanding for how this can be accomplished without adversely affecting neighboring properties.”
In other cities, architecture firms that focus on these specialized dwellings are popping up. The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University has proposed the units in planning projects as one possible tool to deal with the city’s increasing vacant land. In Minneapolis, urban planner Jim Graham is pleased to see the idea he’s pushed for years getting the consideration he said it deserves. Graham works with the city’s Ventura Village neighborhood, the only area of Minneapolis where ADUs are already allowed. In the early 2000s, Graham and his colleagues drew up designs he said could have added an estimated 10,000 accessory units without impacting the “texture of Minneapolis at all.”
Officials had previously shied away from allowing the units, Streitz said, because they feared some landlords might take advantage of the policy.
“Bottom feeder landlords who want to make a few extra bucks will take a closet out back and make it into an apartment,” he said. In order to employ enough inspectors to regulate conditions, Streitz said the commission may work out a fee structure for the construction of the units. “It’s a risk we’re willing to take,” he said. “We just have to be careful about how we craft [our policy].”
Streitz said he expects an official resolution to come through the commission in the next few weeks and if the motion is approved most likely the changes would go into effect at the beginning of next year.