City’s ADU plan has plenty of flaws, but it can be fixed

The city’s Division of Planning has developed a proposal allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on urban residential lots in Lexington. If approved, homeowners will be able to build these fully independent dwellings in their backyards, and offer them for rent.

Advocates have gone to great lengths to point out the benefits, but like many homeowners, I’m not convinced that ADUs are going to be low-impact; that they’re going to blend into the neighborhood; that they won’t over-stuff our neighborhoods with people, structures, and cars; or that they’ll even be used for their intended purpose. As a matter of fact, the current proposal all but guarantees those outcomes—and like many other homeowners—I don’t support it.

Here’s what I would support.

For starters, I’m willing to support an ADU proposal whose scope is limited to addressing a legitimate land management problem— the shortage of long-term housing within Lexington’s constrained borders. It follows that I do not support the use of ADUs for short-term, Airbnb-style rental, under any circumstances.

I also support ADU conversions of basements or second stories or garages or spaces built above garages. However, if a homeowner wants to rip their roof off and add a second-story ADU, the materials and style should match those of the original structure. In all these cases I don’t care about the square footage if it’s no larger than the footprint of the structure it’s attached to. As far as I’m concerned, we could start permitting that tomorrow.

However, when it comes to attached and detached ADUs that are built over what was originally open space I’d like to see the sizes come down significantly. Five hundred square feet should be the maximum with a six foot setback. Any lot that can’t accommodate at least a 350 square foot ADU with a six foot setback is just too small. It is not unusual for people to live for periods of one to four years (and longer in major cities) in less than 500 square feet. UK students do it both on and off campus, and pay $850 a bed for the opportunity. I don’t know how a conversation about living small got bloated up to 800 square feet, but we need to walk that number way back down.

And finally, we need to amend our ordinance so that the total number of residents that can live in both units (the primary dwelling and the ADU) is limited to the total allowed for a household, as Portland and many other ADU-friendly cities do. As currently written, our ordinance allows up to four unrelated residents to live in a dwelling. We don’t need to incentivize university-area landlords to further degrade the quality of life in what are otherwise some of the city’s most livable neighborhoods. If anything, we need to take steps to reverse the damage that’s already been done.

The city’s current ADU proposal is flawed, but fixable. It goes about encouraging ADU construction by removing as many obstacles to their creation as possible, which is how many cities approach this issue. However, we will have gained nothing if those ADUs aren’t put to their intended purpose, or if we allow them to overwhelm our already-built neighborhoods by failing to hold their size in check.

Dennis Duross is a graphic designer and an amateur luthier.