A Place to Live: ADUs provide one piece of the housing puzzle

By on July 2, 2018

Ask almost anyone in the business community what their greatest challenges are on the Outer Banks and one of the top three answers is usually finding good employees, or these days, finding any employees at all.

Press a bit and ask why, and the answer is almost predictable.

Housing. More specifically, the lack of housing.

The issue touches almost every level of our workforce and residents.

Blue-collar workers, newly minted college graduates, even retirees tired of taking care of a house and yard are hard pressed to find suitable digs at reasonable prices.

A new series from the Voice, “A Place to Live” will explore the housing issue from a number of angles and viewpoints over the course of the next few months.

We don’t propose to solve the problems associated with the housing, but we hope we can provide our readers with enough information that solutions might be achievable.

In our first article, we’ll take a look at one avenue a few local municipalities have taken as a way to begin to address the lack of housing alternatives.

Accessory dwelling units, commonly referred to as ADUs by government planners and zoning administrators, used to be common.

Living units built over garages, in basements, or even detached from the main house — often called granny flats or mother-in-law suites — used to dot the landscape.

But modern-day zoning, often introduced at the behest of voters who complained about increased density, the aesthetics of a “tiny” house in a neighbor’s backyard, setbacks and the appearance of turning a single-family dwelling into a pseudo-apartment placed ADUs on the endangered species list.

A mere decade ago, the idea of a town allowing ADUs on the Outer Banks was unthinkable.

But America’s love affair with ever more restrictive zoning has created a housing crisis in numerous communities, and ADUs are making a comeback.

Recently, two local municipalities passed ordinances allowing ADUs.

The Town of Duck passed its ordinance in 2016 and Kitty Hawk followed suit earlier this year, using Duck’s ordinance as a model. Dare County, at the urging of The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, is looking at the possibility.

Both towns allow a secondary structure to be built on existing residential lots. The ordinances allow for 800 square feet of heated space, and the structure must comply with all setbacks, lot coverage, septic and density allowances that run with the property.

Since Kitty Hawk was the latest municipality to allow ADUs, we sat down with Mayor Gary Perry, Councilman Ervin Bateman and Town Manager Andy Stewart to discuss how they landed on the town’s radar and why the time was right to allow such structures.

We asked Mayor Perry if recent media coverage or demands from the public had spurred the Town Council to action.

None of the above, Perry noted. Instead, a citizen approached the town with a request to build such an ADU and as it turned out, the request was ultimately adopted.

Not that the need to begin to address housing issues wasn’t on the minds of the council members.

Bateman told us when the request first came to his attention, he was against it.

“I thought it would change the character of the community,” he said.

But a situation with an employee, a chef at the restaurant Bateman owns, caused his thinking to change.

“She lost her place to live and even at what we were paying her, she simply couldn’t find a decent place to live and she left the area. That caused me to reconsider my position,” he added.

“I’m just like any other business owner. There’s nothing special about my situation, and so I realized other businesses were in the same boat. It was time to think out of the box,” Bateman explained.

From Perry’s perspective, ADUs were not only a natural progression in the quest for housing alternatives, they were nothing new.

“Many years ago, you might find a situation where a retired parent or family member moved a trailer onto a lot and set up living quarters in the backyard. Or a room, bathroom and small kitchenette were built over a garage. In those days, no one paid any attention to those things and there were no ordinances or health department rules prohibiting their existence,” he said.

Perry also explained that Kitty Hawk’s past and present play a role in the town taking measures to address housing issues.

“We’ve been a working community for my lifetime and we’ve just developed into kind of a workforce place just because of that. People lived here, they work here, and it’s just been that way forever. So it was a natural thing in the sense we are a workforce housing place. A bedroom (community) if you will,” he added.

Perry went on to note that the ordinance doesn’t increase density because an ADU doesn’t allow any more people to occupy the lot than current ordinances and septic requirements allow.

In that respect, one of the major reasons many local residents oppose new housing initiatives — the significant increase in density per square mile that occurs with apartments, condos and cluster homes — was not a factor with ADUs.

More to the point, an ADU allows a lot owner to build the structure without subdividing the lot.

Without an ADU ordinance, a lot owner wishing to add an ADU would be forced to create a new lot, a process that under almost all local town and county ordinances is permanent. Once subdivided, lots cannot be recombined in the future.

“That was another reason density wasn’t really an issue since the current owner could have subdivided the lot anyway and built a new structure,” Perry said.

Town Manager Stewart said the ordinance will mostly apply to the west side, especially in what is known as the village area of Kitty Hawk.

“Lot sizes east of the bypass are too small to meet the requirements, so while the ADU ordinance allows such structures anywhere in the town, the setback and lot coverage issues preclude oceanside lots for the most part,” he said.

With a 30-percent lot coverage maximum in the town, and an 800 square foot heated-space maximum (or 50 percent of the heated space of the principal dwelling on the lot, whichever is less), Stewart said lots from 1 to 5 acres should be able to accommodate an ADU.

Depending on the size of the primary dwelling and the proposed ADU, even a half-acre lot could qualify for one.

Another advantage of passing the ordinance — better enforcement and cleaning up some existing non-conforming structures were also mentioned.

Perry noted that properties with living quarters over garages have been around for a long time “and everyone knows they exist.”

The ordinance now makes those properties legal if they comply with all zoning and building codes, which Stewart says will allow for better enforcement by town officials where these existing ADUs exist.

And going forward, there would be little reason for a homeowner to construct an ADU over a garage and hide its existence from town officials.

When asked who might be interested in building an ADU, Stewart ticked off a list of possible applicants, ranging from families wishing to house parents or adult children to employers or young homeowners wishing to earn additional income from their property.

Bateman told us he called Dare County and asked Donna Creef, the county Planning Director, how many properties in unincorporated Dare would qualify under an ordinance similar to Kitty Hawk and Duck’s.

“She said about 400 such lots would qualify,” Bateman said. “That’s potentially 400 more housing units in the county alone. If you can rent them for $1,000 a month, that would also generate almost $5 million more a year in economic activity before you add in the productivity of the workers.”

All of which led Bateman to one more conclusion.

“ADUs would be perfect for our foreign J-1 students who come here in the summer. But these kids ride bikes. They don’t own or drive cars. While some of our housing solutions lie across the bridges to Roanoke Island and Currituck County, these workers aren’t going to be riding bikes across those bridges to work. They need housing close to their jobs and that means we need to supply that housing along the northern and central beaches (Duck to Nags Head) and also on Hatteras Island,” he observed.

None of those we interviewed saw ADUs as a final solution to the housing problem and there is a broad recognition that the number of property owners with qualified lots who might construct an ADU may turn out to be very small.

But it’s a step in the right direction, they believe, and it opens the door to more discussion and perhaps, other housing alternatives.

While people often confuse affordable housing with subsidized, Section 8-style, in massive apartment blocks from days gone-by, that’s not what anyone is talking about.

“When we’re talking about affordable housing, we are really talking about workforce housing where our employees can live. And ADUs are a way to bring such housing, which I call ‘backdoor affordable housing’ without the density and other negatives that come with what most people associate with the term ‘affordable housing,” Bateman said.

Perry observes, “The world is changing. And although we ‘want’ the gate across the bridge to Dare County to stay locked, it was unlocked a long time ago and its never going to be relocked. All we can do is respond with the options available to us in the best way we can and make those decisions we need to make.”

Bateman agreed.

“We as policy makers have to make concessions if we’re going to address this. We can’t go with the same rules, the same zoning and expect things to change. I had to make a concession when it came to ADUs. We’re all going to have to continue to make concessions and really think outside of the box.”

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  • gsurf123

    “Perry went on to note that the ordinance doesn’t increase density because an ADU doesn’t allow any more people to occupy the lot than current ordinances and septic requirements allow.”

    This is a lie: The current maximums are not enforced so this will increase density. Everyone knows they are not enforced yet nothing is done about it (nor every will be because the tourists dictate the rules). On my street you can assume every house is over capacity and verify it by spending a few minutes counting people when they return from the beach. This illegal over usage affects everyone (and their septic fields).

    Tuesday, Jul 3 @ 7:36 am
  • Really?

    Based on the fact this website advertises for Airbnb, why won’t anyone writing these articles state that most people will simply choose to use it as a short term rental instead of long term? That while they may rent them for “$1,000 a month” they will most likely choose to rent them for $1,000 a week, which means you gain nothing towards the housing problem. I agree with @gsurf123, how can it be said density won’t increase when officials don’t know how overcrowded properties are now. I mean no one checks this and who will? I guess there won’t be any extra cars in the driveway either huh?? Really?

    Wednesday, Jul 4 @ 9:02 am
  • Sandy

    “She lost her place to live and even at what we were paying her, she simply couldn’t find a decent place to live and she left the area.”

    Local businesses will do anything to find reliable, honest employees… Except pay them a living wage.

    It actually makes me happy when those vultures go out of business sometimes. Hey Bateman, you deserve whatever you get.

    Wednesday, Jul 4 @ 2:04 pm
  • charlie

    Sandy has a great point… Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce would dig in and find what wages are like for the little guys on the Outer Banks who keep things going…If the wages are not sufficient to live here, how do businesses expect to find and keep reliable, honest employees?

    Friday, Jul 6 @ 12:15 pm
  • Sandy

    Charlie, the last thing the Chamber is going to do is shed light on the minimum wage issue. Instead they will spend years pretending to do another study and then issue a plan to try to get more telecommuters to move here.

    Saturday, Jul 7 @ 6:04 pm
  • hightider

    $1000 a month is affordable housing? Maybe for two people.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 7:24 pm
  • Bud

    Before the yuppies started taking over, rent was $300. Now it is $1200 for the same place. Criminal..

    Wednesday, Jul 18 @ 8:51 am