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What is an Accessory Dwelling Unit?

Originally posted here by Scioto Analysis July 7, 2023. By Michael Hartnett

Recently Scioto Analysis has been working with the RISE Together Innovation Institute to research the current state of poverty in Franklin County and policy to improve it. One policy we’ve been looking at has been loosening regulations surrounding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as a way to improve housing affordability. One major challenge faced by people in poverty is finding affordable housing. We found during our research that families with income under $20,000 annually were 28 times more likely to be housing burdened (spending over 30% of their income on housing) as families making over $70,000 annually.

In Columbus, housing prices have risen by over 60% in the last five years. To make matters worse, the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission projects that in 25 years, the Central Ohio region will grow by as many as 756,000 people.

If nothing changes, Franklin County could be on track for a housing crisis. The good news is that rising prices and a lack of housing have the same solution: increase the supply of housing.

This can be achieved by building new affordable housing, but that takes a lot of time and resources. Even worse, developers are often incentivized to build new luxury housing in order to maximize the value of their property.

This is where ADUs come in. An ADU is a separate living space that exists on a lot in addition to a single family home. It could be part of a single family home like a basement or an attic, or it could be a separate structure like a detached garage.

In addition to increasing the supply of housing, ADUs also make neighborhoods with single family homes more affordable to live in. Without dramatically changing the existing infrastructure, we can put more families in neighborhoods that historically have been limited in the number of people that can physically live there.

Another side effect of ADUs is that it gives low-to-middle income earners more access to neighborhoods with higher income. Those neighborhoods have higher upward mobility thanks to things like high quality schools and low crime rates.

Arguably the best benefit of ADUs is that from a policy perspective, they are extremely cost effective. While ADUs are not going to solve the problem of a massively growing population (that will require large investments into affordable housing), ADUs are a low-cost strategy to get more people into stable housing situations. All it requires from policymakers is a change in zoning rules.

The benefits of having stable housing are significant as well. People with reliable housing have better health, employment, and education outcomes. All of these things reduce the burden on the social safety net, and free up resources to be used elsewhere in our society. ADUs are likely to face pushback from people who don’t like the thought of single-family neighborhoods allowing multiple families to live separately on the same plot. Educating these people about the benefits of affordable housing could help garner support for ADUs.

As Central Ohio grows over the next 25 years, policymakers are going to have to come up with creative ways to make housing more affordable. New construction of affordable housing is likely going to be required at some point, but we don’t have to wait that long to improve conditions.

ADUs are not going to solve the housing crisis by themselves. However, if policymakers change the zoning rules and allow ADUs to be built, we could see short-term improvements. Policymakers should be looking for low-cost ways to bridge the gap until a more permanent solution can be implemented.


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