BY BRIAN LIBBY
Ever since Oregon's pioneering land-use planning laws of the 1970s, Portland has embraced density over sprawl. Yet there has always been a limit to how many people are willing to live in multi-family condo and apartment buildings. For a lot of residents, the picket-fence dream remains vital: the chance to live in a single-family home with a yard and a little distance from your neighbors.
But as Tuesday's New York Times story on the rise of accessory dwelling units in Portland reminds us, over the past four years the explosion of these structures, often known as granny flats, has presented a kind of third way for achieving density.
In Portland, the number of ADUs permitted in 2013 was six times greater than the yearly average from 2000 to 2009, with a total of just under 200 units constructed in the calendar year. The increase is due largely to a 2010 City of Portland fee waiver, which reduced the cost of building an accessory dwelling unit by $8,000 to $11,000.
As Eric Engstrom of the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability tells the Times' Sandy Keenan, the city had been lobbied for several years before the 2010 rule change to remove barriers to ADU construction. But the change also was prompted by a Department of Environmental Quality study. It found that reducing the size of a house was the most effective way to reduce both the energy and material-related greenhouse gas impacts of a house. Among 30 different material reduction and reuse practices evaluated, reducing home size and multi-family living achieved the largest greenhouse gas reductions along with significant reductions in other impact categories. Reducing home size by 50 percent, the study found, results in a projected 36 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.
Given that the average new home in Oregon is 2,200 square feet and ADUs top out at 800 square feet, and that about 20 to 30 percent of the state’s landfill waste comes from the construction debris, "the relative benefits of reducing home size were so much greater than other programs being incentivized,” Jordan Palmeri, an engineer with the Oregon DEQ, told Keenan.
Beyond environmental impact, ADUs have proven to be a popular housing choice both for the simplified lifestyle they offer and the chance to change the balance of housing affordability - for owners and tenants alike. “Given the low vacancy rate, when they’re done, you can rent them out in about an hour,” Engstrom told Keenan.
Even though the 200-in-a-year figure is impressive, interviewees in Keenan's story agree that it would be much more were it not for how banks just can't seem to get on board with ADUs. Most lending institutions do not provide funds for these accessory dwellings.
Keenan's story features several homeowners who have taken the ADU plunge, such as Jen Wantland and Bryan Scott, who converted their Southeast Portland two-car garage into a 480-square-foot home using mostly salvaged materials for approximately $60,000. Wantland and Scott rent out their four-bedroom house, which more than covers their living expenses. There's also the 600-square-foot ADU in the Boise neighborhood built by Lenore Prato and Ken Finney for Prato's parents.
For those looking for more examples, or specifically to see some of these projects in person, there happens to be an ADU tour coming up. Build Small, Live Large: Portland’s Accessory Dwelling Unit Tour, featuring 12 accessory dwellings, is scheduled for Sunday, June 1 from 10:00AM to 4:00PM.
The tour includes examples like the Dyer ADU, which Stephanie & Sam Dyer built on the footprint of their detached garage. The two-story, 342-square-foot dwelling, built for $110,000, serves as a guest space for their in-laws and gets rented out the rest of the year, helping the Dyers to pay their existing-house mortgage. It's furnished with many of the tiles that Stephanie, an interior designer and product designer, created.
But there are also examples on the tour of ADUs created within an existing space, such as the 650-square-foot basement unit created by Derin & Andra Williams in their circa-1920s Rose City Park bungalow.
There is also an overlapping trend of tiny houses, many of which are under 200 square feet and are often built on wheels, not so much to be mobile as to be classified as a mobile home and thus subject to fewer regulations. Former Portlander Dee Williams recently spoke at Powell's Books about her effort to build an 86-square-foot tiny house that's now located in Olympia in the book The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir. Williams also is the co-founder of Portland Alternative Dwellings, a consultancy for others looking to streamline their lives with mini-dwellings.
Over the past year the real estate market has returned from the depths of the Great Recession, and home construction is happening again all over Portland, whether it's tall apartment towers in the Pearl District or single-family homes across the city's historic neighborhoods. ADUs and tiny houses aren't meant to compete with either, but particularly in the case of single-family homes, these small residences can make a pairing which allows the older house to stay. There is an epidemic in Portland happening today: more old single-family houses are being torn down than at any point in a generation. For many homeowners, especially those with limited financial means, it's all too easy to sell to a developer looking to tear down the original house and build a duplex. Building an ADU can provide struggling homeowners with an alternative to demolition: a chance to stay in one's home with a new income stream via rent from an ADU. What's more, an ADU gives Portland's historic neighborhoods a chance to densify without sacrificing what we love about these neighborhoods.