Debunking the Myths About ADUs

By Brent Woodcox

In my previous post, I talked about the need to legalize accessory dwelling units/granny flats/backyard cottages. 

With the city's Growth and Natural Resources committee scheduled to take up the issue of ADUs at today's committee meeting, I thought it would be a good time to debunk some of the most common arguments I have heard from those who oppose the construction of this new type of housing.

  • ADUs won't help with affordable housing.

First, this is not what Raleigh's Comprehensive Plan says about ADUs. It says that constructing ADUs can "provide affordable and workforce housing options and help accommodate future citywide residential demand." Now maybe city council has disavowed the Comprehensive Plan and no longer believes in the policy choices that undergird it. Maybe they have done an about face on fighting for more housing supply to try keep up with growing demand. If that is the case, then we probably need to have a broader conversation about what needs to be done to update the Comprehensive Plan to better memorialize this council's policy goals in regards to housing policy.

But we also need to have a conversation that involves experts when it comes to Raleigh housing policy. How about someone like the city's Director of Housing and Neighborhoods Department, Larry Jarvis? He was recently asked about the housing supply being added in Raleigh and had this to say:

The director of Raleigh’s Housing and Neighborhoods Department, Larry Jarvis, said all of the new downtown housing buildings under construction are high-end units and cannot be considered affordable. However, he said more affordable options will become available as a result of the new construction.

”Any time that you add to supply, through what we call the filtering process, is people move up into the newer units. They move out of older units that are more affordable, so we’re still adding to affordability by just adding product itself,” Jarvis said.

It seems like the same logic would apply to ADUs. As new housing is added to the supply to meet increasing demand, people select housing that meets their lifestyle needs and other options are opened up to new buyers and renters. This helps drive down the overall price of housing that remains on the market and hopefully puts it in reach of more people who are looking to rent or buy. This isn't a complicated concept. It's basic economic science.

  • ADUs will bring noise to neighborhoods.

Raleigh has an extensive noise ordinance. It covers among other things: the sound of a horn or signal, a siren, an automobile or motorcycle, a radio or stereo, the blowing of a steam whistle, the exhaust from an internal combustion engine, demolition, repair or construction of a building, the loading an unloading of vehicles and excessive animal noises. It would be fairly deemed to be comprehensive and is enforced. The maximum penalty for violating the noise ordinance is a misdemeanor conviction that comes with jail time up to 30 days and a maximum fine of $500. If noise is a real issue in our neighborhoods, I suggest that the council revisit the noise ordinance rather than prohibit ADUs from being built.

  • ADUs cause problems with lighting.

If this proves to be a real problem, a simple regulation requiring lights to be aimed away from adjacent properties or limited in their brightness could be adopted. Again, this is no reason to jettison the construction of ADUs altogether and it's hard to imagine that even those raising this concern believe it is an insurmountable challenge.

  • ADUs create parking and traffic problems.

It's worth noting that ADUs have already been constructed in certain historic neighborhoods in Raleigh where they pre-date the current zoning code. There have been no reports of parking or traffic problems being caused by ADUs in those neighborhoods. A study done on Portland ADUs showed that ADUs were responsible for 744 cars in the city while single family residences were responsible for 226,440 cars. The average Portland household had 1.53 cars and the average ADU had 0.93 cars. From the study...

Whether ADUs are a good or bad policy for community development, there is absolutely no evidence they cause parking problems. Because ADUs are extremely rare (Portland, the nation’s ADU “leader,” has them on less than 1% of eligible lots), and because ADU households have fewer cars than other households, ADUs should have virtually no effect on parking conditions on a citywide basis.

Now if there were dense concentrations of ADUs — for example, a city block where every single house had an ADU — there might be a noticeable effect on parking conditions. But that day is a long, long, long way off. Meanwhile, it is possible that ADUs could provide other civic benefits. Is it worth going without those benefits to “rein in” that tiny sliver of parking spaces?

It's also worth noting that the current ADU proposal to be discussed in committee offers no additional parking regulations so this concern seems overblown at best. There is just no evidence to suggest that enough cars will be brought into neighborhoods to cause traffic problem. Outside of the hysterical assertion that allowing ADUs will "double density" in the city, there is just no evidence to suggest that ADUs will create a meaningful difference when it comes to cars entering and leaving the neighborhood. One could even suggest we should worry more about where people live than where cars do.

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At this point, the city of Raleigh has been debating the issue of ADUs off and on since at least 2011. It seems impossible for the city to make any progress on issues like this one. But as former councilor Bonner Gaylord said back when this debate was raging in 2013, "This is the time to take the bold step forward. We know that we’re running out of land … and how to densify is going to be a problem for the next 20 years.” There is still time to take that step forward on behalf of adding to housing affordability in our city and in the interests of renters and homeowners. But time is running out.

Brent WoodcoxComment