How Can Access to ADU Construction Be Expanded in DC?

by Nena Perry-Brown

A cut-away showing a studio accessory dwelling unit atop a garage from Cross Design Group

In recent years, the conversation around accessory dwelling units (ADUs) has grown to acknowledge and advocate for the small units as a potential tool to increase affordable housing options and help certain households age in place or build wealth. Last week, a group announced an initiative to make ADU construction a more accessible option for low- and moderate-income DC households, and a discussion ensued about what else needs to be done to further this goal.

The ADU DC Initiative, a pilot partnership between the United Planning Organization, Coalition for Smarter Growth and Citi Community Development, aims to fund construction of two ADUs over the next year, create a manual to walk homeowners through the process of building an ADU, and develop recommendations for how the process can be simplified. Industry experts and authorities shared other perspectives on how the city can improve its approach to ADU permitting and completion.

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) director Ernest Chrappah noted that financing, carrying costs and the permitting process present hurdles for most people interested in constructing an ADU, referring to the anxieties surrounding the process as "preexisting conditions". "We have to recognize that underlying condition and deliver service that not only eases their concern, but also gets them to their permit faster."

Other suggestions which emerged from the conversation included:

  • Spreading information to homeowners via educational sessions and expanding the offerings in the existing DCRA Homeowner's Center. An idea floated by former DC planning director and current director of the New Urban Mobility alliance Harriet Tregoning was to have students at a trade school in the city create a demonstration ADU which could be deployed for display at different sites to familiarize people with the concept (similar to the demo tiny house debuted in Deanwood last year).
  • Create incentives and inflate demand by launching temporary offers, creating conditional tax credits, or restructuring fees for building permits in such a way that ADU permitting becomes more financially attractive. Tregoning noted that when Portland temporarily waived a five-figure impact fee specifically for ADU construction, the influx of homeowners looking to create ADUs enabled improvements with the system to be implemented quicker. "All of a sudden, there were all of these people doing it at the same time, they could talk to each other, the issues that needed to be resolved with the permitting agency kind of came to a head because a lot of business was now coming in," Tregoning explained, noting that while DC doesn't have a comparable fee, waiving the fee in Portland increased annual production of ADUs from roughly 20 to 600.
  • Improve access to financing, whether by creating new or adapting existing mortgage vehicles to tailor them to ADU construction, amending underwriting criteria for ADUs, pooling money as a loan loss reserve, or improving the availability of information on the rent generated by ADUs so lenders have more comps to reference. Maura Brophy, an associate director at the Federal City Council, noted that some of the financing initiatives being piloted in other cities will be instructive once those cities are able to assess the efficacy of those programs. 
  • Incorporate a workforce development component by signal-boosting contractors who may want to specialize in ADUs and connecting consumers with contractors who offer apprenticeships or are otherwise invested in hiring locally. Chrappah also mentioned the existing plans to train DC residents as on-demand home inspectors as DCRA deals with understaffing.

UrbanTurf will continue to keep an eye on how the ADU DC Initiative continues to develop and whether any suggestions are implemented.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/experts-opine-on-increasing-access-to-adu-construction-in-dc/15756

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