Council approves accessory dwelling unit policy

Council approves accessory dwelling unit policy
Accessory dwelling units can be located within an existing dwelling or as a stand alone structure, such as a detached garage or shed. (Image/City of Alexandria)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council approved a preliminary version of a zoning text amendment that would define accessory dwelling units in code with restrictions around their use, ownership, height and location during the public hearing on Saturday.

ADUs are secondary housing units located on residential lots that have a separate kitchen, sleeping area and bathroom. They can be located within the dwelling already on the property – i.e. a basement apartment – or serve as stand-alone exterior units, such as a detached garage or shed.

ADUs have been a topic of conversation in the city for years: The city has been assessing the potential for an ADU policy since 2008 when Arlington approved a similar policy. The concept has drawn both support and criticism from community members who, respectively, see them as a partial solution to the city’s lack of housing supply or a catalyst for additional density in an already dense city.

The policy staff proposed on Saturday was aimed at addressing the need for more market rate affordable units in the city, an argument that ADU supporters have cited in the past. Between 2000 and 2019, Alexandria lost about 16,000 market affordable rental units, which accounted for an 87% decline, according to the staff presentation.

Due to their size and lack of amenities compared to units in larger apartment complexes, ADUs are often rented more affordably, Julia Santure, a city housing analyst, said. Since ADUs can be built inside a house or on an existing piece of residential property, they also provide some residents with the chance to live in neighborhoods they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

“These units can help us expand housing affordability throughout the entire city by creating greater access to high-performance schools, parks and other amenities that may not have been previously accessible to low- and moderate-income renters,” Santure said.

According to staff, ADUs also enable seniors and people with disabilities to age and live safely and affordably in place by providing them a living space close to their relatives or by providing housing for a caregiver. There are 3,350 to 3,906 low-income senior households and 6,132 seniors living alone in Alexandria, according to the staff presentation.

Staff recommended a policy that would allow one ADU to be built on any property that is developed with a single-family, two-family or townhouse dwelling.

Under the staff-recommended policy, occupancy of the ADU would be limited to three or fewer people, only one ADU would be permitted per property and short-term rentals, which constitute anything rented for less than 30 days, would be permitted following current city code. Staff also recommended no separate fee for the ADU permit and that the principal dwelling and ADU remain under common ownership.

ADUs would also be limited to the height of the primary dwelling or 20 feet, whichever is less.

As presented by staff, the policy drew mixed reactions from both council and the community.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein largely supported staff’s recommendation. However, he said that while ADUs are a useful housing tool that will provide additional overall units, they do not address the ongoing dearth of affordable housing in the city, as some community members and city staff said.

“This is not an affordable housing policy. This is just a housing policy that the city needs,” Seifeldein said.

Some residents and members of council expressed worry that ADUs could easily be used for short-term rentals and AirBnB stays that would create additional noise pollution and disruption in neighborhoods where rentals are not common.

Seifeldein opposed the idea of ADUs being used exclusively for short-term rentals and said the need for additional housing units should be balanced with the needs of entrepreneurs.

“If the stated purpose of the ADUs is to allow more housing, which leads to stability, the concern is … there are innovative entrepreneurs out there that may use this exclusively as rentals, AirBnB rentals,” Seifeldein said. “At the same time, given our universal city policy about short-term rentals, I don’t want to exclude someone or chill their entrepreneurship.”

In response to Seifeldein’s comments, Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said that other jurisdictions have put limitations on the number of days per year that an ADU can be used as a shortterm rental. Council directed staff to assess something similar in the city.

Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, opposed the ordinance, citing staff’s removal of an owner occupancy requirement prior to its presentation on Saturday. Previously, staff had recommended that the owner of the property live on-site but had removed the requirement.

Flemming expressed a concern, echoed by several residents, that external ADUs would end up functioning as short-term rentals and AirBnBs instead of the permanent and intergenerational dwellings staff had presented. By requiring owner occupancy, Flemming argued, short-term tenants would feel more pressure to act responsibly in a given neighborhood.

“We wonder how increasing the number of what will be hotel rooms in the city in any way addresses the affordable housing crisis,” Flemming said. “Knowing the likely use of ADUs is the reason why owner occupancy should be required.”

City Planner Sam Shelby noted that staff had removed the owner occupancy requirement because further research found that jurisdictions who adopted an ADU policy often removed the owner occupancy requirement later, citing it as an unnecessary regulatory barrier to ADU development.

Alexandria resident Zachary DesJardins argued that without an owner occupancy requirement, property owners would be encouraged to develop ADUs on their properties and open up new opportunities for low-income residents.

“I think omitting the owner occupancy limit will allow more ADUs to be built within neighborhoods that frankly don’t have any rentals at all today,” DesJardins said. “… Adding diversity of race and income into our whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods is an admirable goal.”

Although they both supported the concept of ADUs in general, Councilors Del Pepper and Amy Jackson expressed concerns with a lack of some owner occupancy restrictions.

“… I feel strongly about the owner occupancy sort of thing because I know what it’s like for the owner not to be there. It’s like the cat’s away and the mice will play, and it’s not fair to the neighborhoods,” Pepper said.

Mayor Justin Wilson supported some kind of restrictions but opposed an overly prescriptive policy around owner occupancy that would put an additional burden on staff to be “hiding in the bushes” in order to determine who lives where.

In opposition to staff’s recommendation, multiple members of council supported adding an ADU permit fee in order to fund the additional staff efforts required by the ADU policy.

“We felt it was good to remove one small barrier to applications given how challenging the whole process is going to be, but [a fee] wouldn’t fatally damage the program,” Moritz said in response.

The staff-proposed policy did not require property owners to provide additional on-site or street parking if they wanted to develop an ADU, which drew opposition from Councilors John Chapman and Pepper.

Chapman expressed disappointment that staff had opted for a general approach to a parking policy instead of a neighborhood-specific approach. He urged staff to reconsider its approach to parking and recommended council send the policy back to staff for revisions.

“Even though we are approving this for the entire city, I do think we have different neighborhoods that have parking concerns,” Chapman said. “… For us to do a blanket policy that doesn’t address those concerns seems a little bit irresponsible.”

Seifeldein ultimately made a motion, seconded by Chapman, to approve the staff-recommended text amendment with specific changes. Council directed staff to include a prohibition against exclusive short-term rentals; an initial owner occupancy requirement at the time of ADU construction; a $75 to $100 permit fee; a council review of the policy after 18 months and a required notification to neighbors in the event of ADU development.

Seifeldein also incorporated staff’s proposed tiered approach to setbacks: The taller the external ADU, the farther back from the property line it would have to be.

The motion passed 6-1, with Jackson as the lone dissenting vote.