As groundhog day visits a us again let us revisit a topic that has been long-debated in our city over the past few years: should we be allowing more Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in Tacoma?
One of the primary benefits of ADUs is that they insert affordable housing units into existing residential neighborhoods. Few infrastructure costs are incurred when this occurs and no additional land acquisition is needed. This tool to increase residential options in Tacoma was an important recommendation by the Affordable Housing Policy Advisory Group in 2015 and is still relevant today (i.e., https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/politics-government/article30515256.html)
However, Tacoma residents have waited patiently for more than three years as the city has held one meeting after another about the appropriateness of ADU development. Many of the goals that the city has set for addressing its significant housing needs would be achieved, or at least furthered, by allowing more ADUs to be built. Of course, a plethora of regulations on ADUs would still be in place to ensure that they did not harm the “character” of a neighborhood.
One example of such regulation is the proposal to limit the number of ADUs that receive permits. Regulations would also stipulate that the structures be placed in an appropriate location on an existing residential lot, so as not to negatively impact the intentional designs of Tacoma’s varied urban neighborhoods.
Should we be so worried? ADUs will have less visual impact on neighborhoods if the city does not require additional parking requirements. ADU’s may also increase opportunities for neighboring and other social interactions by increasing density without height.
More people living at ground level may augment community vitality and ‘eyes on the street.’ Perhaps even a more cohesive sense of place for residents and visitors to Tacoma.
Most of Tacoma neighborhoods already have ADUs which are accepted and fit nicely within the existing neighborhoods.
From a historic perspective these accessory dwelling units, have been a useful way to house a variety of people at a lower cost to the renter and an increased benefit to the homeowner. This incrementally-denser development pattern has been used in cities similar Tacoma and is a rational response to increased housing demand.
The economic benefits of increased affordable units in some cases will also extend to homeowners that are able to build ADUs and subsidize their housing expenses amid increasing taxes, utility, and maintenance costs. In some cases, this may mean that residents can afford to stay in their homes and provide opportunities to age in place in the neighborhood they prefer.
However, it is of no surprise that some homeowners are opposed to substantial growth in Tacoma. While it is natural to be somewhat adverse to change, especially when one is attached to a place and have come to identify with the ways it is currently designed with respect to aesthetic and density, Tacoma has proven itself to be a welcoming place for people of varied incomes and it seems likely that more permitted ADUs will offer the city more opportunities to prove itself further.
By placing ADUs in existing neighborhoods, no farmland or forestland need be altered. Residents in new ADUs can more easily walk to grocery stores in many parts of the city, reducing vehicle use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Ultimately, good urbanism requires good design. Even if all other requirements for density are met, the result must look appealing. By placing these structures in backyards, street facing facades will be preserved with minimal disruption to good urban form will occur.
ADUs Make for Good Public Policy.
Good public policy is different from over-reaching regulation. The nature of a city is to change and turning challenges, like a lack of affordable housing, into solutions, like affordable options for increased density, is an exciting (and expected) opportunity for Tacoma. The City’s proposed regulations seek to provide housing without public subsidy. The fact is that ADUs will add a progressive tax revenue stream into the City’s budget that could be reinvested by the city toward affordable housing goals.
Of course, no homeowner in Tacoma is being forced to add living space to their house, or dwelling options to their property. If the City wishes to encourage development of ADUs, it needs to continue to lead in its ability to make the process affordable and easy to navigate for those who wish to participate in this initiative.
In turn, no one is being forced to add revenue to their income or additions to their property. No one is being forced to help address the affordable housing crisis. What is happening, however, is that a call is being put forward for Tacomans to support rational opportunities to add housing, population, and revenue to a city we love.