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Opinion: How ADUs can alleviate the US housing crisis

ADUs are one of the most effective ways to add density and rental properties in a higher cost market

The U.S. housing market is short by at least 6.5 million homes. After more than a decade of under-building relative to population growth, there are simply not enough affordable entry-level and first-time move-up options available for buyers.

Renters are finding themselves priced out of areas within a reasonable commuting distance to work.

The scarcity of housing has driven home prices and rents prices to an all-time high and pushed affordability to a multi-decade low. 

Over the next decade, there will be more than two million adults added annually to the U.S. population, due to a combination of aging and immigration. This shift will drive a voracious need for more housing, especially among entry-level and first-time move-up homes at lower price points given structural affordability challenges.

Reasons for the housing shortage are plentiful

Housing has been materially unbuilt for the past 15 years. Most production builders have focused on ever larger and more expensive new homes, and relatively few new homes have been built that cater to lower-income households and entry-level buyers, especially in high-cost coastal markets. 

Most recently, rising mortgage rates have intensified the fight for housing. From February 2011 to April 2022, mortgage rates never rose above 5%, making the cost to borrow money and buy a home very cheap.

However, since 2022, there has been a rapid rise in rates that has created a “lock-in effect,” stalling many families who would have otherwise considered moving.

Homeowners who “locked-in” a mortgage rate of 3-4% during the pandemic are unwilling to buy a home at a 7%+ on a new mortgage, which means even fewer homes are going on the market as existing homeowners choose to stay put.

For those hoping to buy a home for the first time, the rise in rates means that monthly payments are effectively double what they would have been a year ago, a reality that has priced many people out of buying.

Couple that with rising costs of home insurance and the general price inflation, and there is a massive housing affordability problem facing the majority of the country.

A need for alternatives

This persistent housing shortage has generated a pressing need for alternatives that can bridge the gap between demand and supply, while accounting for a limited availability of land in top areas. 

Enter the Accessory Dwelling Unit, commonly known as an ADU, or more informally called an in-law suite, granny flat or backyard home. ADUs are small, self-sufficient structures that usually have one to three bedrooms, a private entrance, and all the amenities that a resident would require including kitchens and bathrooms.

ADUs are one of the most effective ways to add density and rental properties in a higher cost market. These generally detached structures can be built in less than a year and cost far less to build than primary homes. Depending on where you live, there are also various state-run programs such as the CalHFA ADU Grant in California that can bring down building costs tremendously. 

For homeowners, ADUs offer an opportunity to provide affordable housing on the rental market or house relatives that would otherwise be unable to afford the neighborhood. These structures can generate rental income to offset rising mortgage payments, and create more long-term rental supply, ultimately lowering the average rental cost for tenants.

For local governments, ADUs can increase the number of tenants in areas where high-rise dwellings are not a desirable option.

ADUs also offer a compelling option for multi-generational living, which can be a tremendous help with families that want to reduce burdens of childcare and senior care.

Changing policies good for ADUs

Fortunately, we are seeing many government authorities focusing on changing housing policies and zoning codes to make ADUs a more actionable solution. It’s a rare example of government housing policies driving the private market to solve a critical problem.

For example, California’s changes in laws and regulations have made ADUs much easier to build. The momentum from these regulations has resulted in a large increase in ADU construction activity: permits for ADUs in California have increased nearly 22x from around 1,100 in 2015 to nearly 24,000 in 2022 and roughly 68,000 ADUs were built across California between 2017-2021. As a result, there are a large number of new housing units that have been added to high-cost locations where people hope to live and work. 

Nationwide, many local and state governments are starting to follow the California example. Washington, Oregon, Florida, and Colorado, to name a few states, are starting to make ADUs a more prevalent part of solving the housing affordability issue.

Ultimately, ADUs alone won’t solve decades of housing issues. But they can close the gap between the number of people looking for affordable housing and the number of homes available for rent or purchase.

Sean Roberts is CEO of Villa, an ADU builder in California.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Sean Roberts at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracey Velt at [email protected]

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