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  • Ellen Bassett

Living Well while Living Small

This summer, like the previous five, I’ve spent several weeks in Portland, Oregon living in an ADU. The humidity is low, the sun is out and it gets really cool at night so it is kind of hard to beat this place during this time of year. (Especially when you add in other attractions like the vibrant bar and restaurant scene and my lovely neighbors and friends.)

But an ADU? WTX is that?

Well officially it is an “accessory dwelling unit.” Or a small living unit built either into an existing house or in a discrete small structure on the same parcel. Ours is tucked into the backyard of our main house, basically where the garage used to sit. (It fell down decades ago.) The structure is about 360 square feet in terms of footprint, plus a sleeping loft.

ADUs have been an emphasis for affordable housing, as well as “aging in place” for quite some time out here. Charlottesville, VA has also been quite interested in developing ADUs (good option for dispersing a student population) but has run into road blocks relative to neighborhood covenants plus there are few programmatic supports. Other places are actively working to support ADUs, particularly California. See a recent NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/16/us/california-today-housing-crisis.html )

In Portland ADUs have become something of a business. There is a group of advocates, including some small-scale developers, designers, and environmentalists, behind it. There is a website (accessorydwellings.org) that provides homeowners with examples of real ADUs and how they have been integrated into parcels and neighborhoods. There is an annual tour of ADUs; our ADU was on the first tour back in 2014. Our write up can be found at: https://accessorydwellings.org/2014/02/21/michael-klepingers-adu-ellen-bassets/. And higher education is playing a role in this “movement” (what the heck, call it a movement). Portland Community College has an ADU design class led by a Portland State University planning grad Lina Menard. Portland is going to host the second (I believe) Build-Small, Live Large Summit in November (http://buildsmall-livelarge.com). This event will feature tours as well as important substantive sessions on finance, regulation, sustainability and design.

Our ADU doesn’t really help much with Portland’s affordability crisis. We are in a hot neighborhood and the place is fully furnished so we can get a premium. This has made me, in general, skeptical about the affordability claim (an N of 1)—but I am still fully supportive of them from a land preservation, carbon reduction, aging in place, wealth building, and environmental sustainability perspective. The graphic below from a PDX Scholar report shows what the occupancy could look like over a lifespan. Send the unruly kid to the accessory unit when s/he gets to be a teenager! http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1040&context=trec_seminar.

While I can't say for sure that my unit is an outlier in terms of rent, there are some indicators that affordability through ADU's remains a challenge. A study of Portland, Eugene, and Ashland completed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality gives us some insights. They found that of the ADUs for which they got data (respondents to the survey numbered 369) 18% of the units were deemed affordable. But of those units, 85% were let to family or friends of the ADU owner. So affordability for a select group.

The regulatory environment matters. For Portland, the report shows an uptick in construction after “system development charges” levied to cover impacts to existing infrastructure like roads, parks, and transit were waived for several years. They also note that some of the objections to these units levied by neighbors—our favorite thing to fight over is parking—doesn’t appear to be true with the average ADU adding only .46 parked car to the street per unit. Likewise, another concern, over-crowding, doesn’t appear to be a problem with the average household size being 1.45 persons. Interestingly women are more likely to rent ADUs than men, 57 to 43%. The property tax benefits are good for localities and the square footage consumed by an ADU occupant is a mere 470 square feet compared with 700 square feet for occupants in all single family residential units. They suggest that perhaps the future of affordable housing ownership is just this type of unit: the ADU as an affordable starter home. Here’s a link to the report: http://www.oregon.gov/deq/FilterDocs/ADU-surveyinterpret.pdf.

March 2018 note: Our ADU got some limited fame as the cover image on ADU Guidance from the State of Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development. Here's the text.

Last Updated:  14 September 2020