Imagine this if you will: It’s Lexington, 2027, and you want to live in the Bell Court neighborhood.
You click around a bit and find a 300-square-foot accessory dwelling unit available behind a 3,000-square-foot home. You’re young, but you have a partner, and that’s fine: The unit tops out at two people under city regulations. From the outside, it looks like a Bell Court house, but tinier.
Accessory dwelling units are the rage in the Lexington: Since the city OK’d them in 2018 as part of its Comprehensive Plan to guide growth and development, several hundred of the tiny houses, granny flats and garage apartments have been built or converted around the city.
The trend has become so popular that Lexington, like Portland, Ore., stages an annual Accessory Dwelling Unit Tour, in which residents ride bikes between unit locations around the city’s older neighborhoods inside New Circle Road. But the units have also caught on in the suburbs, where trollies ferry visitors between units featured in the suburban end of the tour.
Is this a realistic projection for Lexington?
No doubt Lexington will do many things over the next year in order to meet its objective of making housing more dense and reducing the need to add acreage to the Urban Service Area, but accessory dwelling units could be a big part of the plan. At least Fayette County Property Valuation Administrator David O’Neill hopes so.
“There are other types of housing we could be better at, especially in infill and redevelopment,” O’Neill said, citing the accessory dwelling units as a way to “increase density in the urban area.”
O’Neill has stayed in an accessory dwelling unit in Portland, where the units are very popular, he said. Portland enacted regulations for accessory dwelling units in 1997, updating them in 2016. Only one accessory dwelling unit is allowed per house, and the number of people that can live there is limited to one person and five more people related to that person. The units can be no more than 75 percent of the living area of the house or 800 square feet, whichever is less.
The units are also popular in communities near Washington, D.C., although they have popped up as close to Lexington as Nashville. Louisville recently enacted an ordinance requiring property owners to register all rental units including single-room occupancy units and accessory dwelling units.
Lexington briefly considered a zoning ordinance text amendment allowing accessory dwelling units in July, 2010, but it has not been formally resurrected since then. But some folks hope discussion can begin again.
“We need to be thinking creatively and innovatively about how to accommodate our most pressing housing needs for seniors, young professionals and low-income citizens — housing for these folks should be in areas that are close to work, school and necessities,” said Susan Speckert, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a group working toward achieving sustainable growth. “This issue would require study and intentionality to do properly. But this is exactly the kind of conversation we should be having.”
Lexington needs to get better at addressing housing needs that don’t center only on the single-family house with a patch of lawn, Speckert said.
Cities can regulate the accessory dwelling units for many criteria: size, architectural style, how prominently the unit can be seen from the street, how many people can live there. For those who fear that accessory dwelling units could be like the vinyl student housing near the University of Kentucky, the city could regulate the size and number of residents allowed in an accessory dwelling unit.
Around 1998 when landlords began adding barn-like additions to single-family dwellings near UK and packing them with renters, the city updated its zoning laws to protect neighborhoods. Only five of the 189 houses on Elizabeth and State streets and University and Crescent avenues were owner-occupied by the time the rental blitz was over.
Other cities are now catching up with the trend toward accessory development units. In Nashville, for example, the minimum lot size allowed to have an accessory dwelling unit is 4,000 square feet. The maximum size is 30 percent of the principal unit’s square footage. You can find your property size in square feet on the Fayette PVA website.
In Bourbon County, librarian Heather Prichard was able to add a residence for her elderly mother, but she had to link it up to her house in the county. Planning and zoning specified that it had to be attached to the existing house, so the family built a sunroom with laundry to attach it to.
In Bourbon County, residentially zoned land only allows for multiple dwelling units on the same lot if they are attached. Detached accessory dwelling units are not currently allowed on residentially zoned land in the city of Paris.
In the Prichards’ case, their house is in an agricultural zone and an addition is only permitted if inhabited by family or employees of a farm operation.
But planning administrator Andrea Pompei Lacy said that her office “receives regular inquiries about adding accessory dwelling units on residentially zoned land — especially of the aging population that are looking to settle near family and on the same lot.”
Stan Harvey, an architect and urban planner in Lexington who serves on an Urban County Council-created infill and development committee, said that “once people start to see it in practice, they would be less threatened” by the units.
“The concern in Lexington is always going to be about that good housing objective and the student housing objective,” he said, citing the fear that accessory dwelling units would have to be heavily regulated to avoid being exploited for student bunkers. “Those are the kind of tools and policies that have to go with it.”
Kristofer Nonn, director of design and construction for Lexington’s NoLi Community Development Corporation, said that accessory dwelling units are just one of the ways that the city can alter zoning to create increased density.
The goal, he said, should be to “return to multi-use (properties that are both businesses and homes), but with a small-scale neighborhood like it was 100 years ago.”
Decades ago, old carriage houses were frequently converted into houses and were essentially accessory development units before such things were named and regulated. Now, he said, the modern accessory development unit allows people who wouldn’t otherwise be landlords to do so and opens up opportunities for lower-cost housing for elderly people or those with disabilities outside of group living.
“Everything we do to grow we should be proud of, and it should be worthy of being the banner image on a city page,” Nonn said. “You can do something with a small lot that is consistent with the neighborhood, as opposed to current expectations of what a home should be.”
Walter Gaffield, president of the Fayette Neighborhood Association Council, said that neighborhoods should have input, as neighbor support “is always a good policy if someone is adding something onto their property.
“Successful cities nationally are experiencing rising housing costs in their urban cores because of the desirability of living there, just like Lexington,” Gaffield said. “ … Expanding the Urban Services Boundary in 1996 in Lexington only led to suburban sprawl, as no one took advantage of incentives to build affordable housing. ADUs, if done correctly, could help meet growing housing needs in Fayette County.”
What is an accessory dwelling unit?
Accessory dwelling units are independent housing units created within single-family homes or on their lots. This provision under the zoning ordinance is designed to promote:
▪ Aging in place
▪ Income to offset property taxes and repair costs
▪ Serve as a form of affordable housing