A recent op-ed published on Aug. 16, 2019, laid claims that the city’s proposed Accessory Dwelling (ADU) ordinance would allow “storage sheds” to be built to house students in and around the University of Kentucky area. It further claimed that they will have no insulation, plumbing, or electrical and that they will have no foundation and will just set on concrete blocks. These are demonstrably false claims whose purpose is only to stoke fears of student slums spreading into other neighborhoods. In reality the claims that this proposed ordinance would allow somehow less habitable homes to be built is just a flat out lie and I also believe that the fears of a sudden explosion of student slums are unrealistic.
First and foremost, any new ADU whether it be attached or detached, will have to go through a building inspection just like any other new house. The proposed ordinance doesn’t touch building codes because those are set at the state level. This ordinance just merely allows the construction of new ADUs and sets limits on their size and proximity to the property line, aka a setback. So no, you won’t be able to just drop a shed from Lowe’s in your backyard and let people live there.
The city is not expecting many ADUs to be built all at once. ADUs are expensive to build and not everyone will be willing and able to build one. So for this claimed scenario of student slums suddenly popping up in a neighborhood to come true, one of two scenarios have to happen. The first would require a bunch of homeowners on one street to all decide to build an ADU. That requires them to be able to afford it and their property to meet the requirements. That’s a lot of variables that have to line up so I don’t think it is very plausible. The second scenario requires an investor to come in and buy up a bunch of properties on the street. This can, and does, already happen. Allowing ADUs does encourage or discourage this, so claiming that there will be some sudden explosive expansion of student housing, taking over neighborhoods because ADUs are an option now is just fear mongering. If we want to start tackling the issue of absentee investor landlords, I would suggest we look at taxing companies that own a large number of properties, not by limiting what any homeowner can do with their property.
Yes, Lexington does have problems with absentee landlords and student housing, but so does almost every other city. Lexington also has a housing shortage that is leading to increased housing costs across the city. This is especially detrimental when we are expecting 30,000 more people in the coming decades. These new neighbors will be diverse in both age and income, meaning our existing stock of +60% single family detached houses may not suit many of them. Housing is not one size fits all.
We used to allow more types of housing. Duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and even ADUs (ever seen a carriage house downtown?), were built as the city grew and neighborhoods changed, but then we outlawed them or made them incredibly difficult to build. This proposed ordinance moves us toward rectifying that. ADUs will not solve all our housing problems but it will help move us in the right direction by allowing us to increase the variety of housing available to people. Lexington is a diverse city, and variety of people need a variety of housing.
Blake Hall is a community activist that advocates for urbanism and better urban development in Lexington and blog about it at buildabetterlex.com