Both sides can benefit in 'mother-in-law' arrangement

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One sure-fire way to increase the supply of affordable housing and strengthen our neighborhoods is to increase the number of what used to be called "mother-in-law" apartments, as if some mythical relative were about to land on our doorstep in search of a place to live.

Today we know better.

The market for what are more properly termed "accessory dwellings units," or ADUs for short, is essentially... us. Us, when we are single. Us when we are a student. Us when we are a single parent. Us when we are senior citizens, perhaps widowed or divorced.

Many people - in fact, a rapidly growing number of people - either can not afford or do not need a typical house available on the market today. But it seems the only alternative is conventional apartments - often found in large, impersonal complexes separated from the desired attributes of a quiet, family-oriented neighborhood.

An accessory dwelling is not a duplex unit. It is not an apartment structure tacked onto the side of a house. It is not a bedroom converted into a little studio. Rather it is a basement, a modest addition or perhaps space carved out of the inside of a house.

Sometimes, it is a small, separate structure in the back or side yard or above a garage. At best, you hardly notice that it even exists because the ADU has been subtly worked into the architecture of the primary home.

Assuming the unit has received the proper permits from the city or county, its existence does convert the owner into a landlord, which triggers certain federal, state and local laws.

These are generally easy to comply with. And given a bit of planning, the homeowner potentially benefits substantially. An aged homeowner may get a person to help look after the property, for example.

It is common for all sorts of informal agreements to be made that involve light maintenance, help with grocery shopping, cleaning, running errands, sharing vehicles and so forth. An obvious plus is that the owner receives a regular income to offset a mortgage, pay for improvements that add value to the house, or to put into savings.

Sometimes the owner - say a retiree with simpler needs - elects to live in the smaller unit, renting the larger one to a small family. This way, older homes can be more effectively used and kept up, and new families get a shot at pleasant surroundings.

Just the right fit

The tenant of an ADU benefits from this deal, as he or she has found a modest place to live, often at a relatively reasonable rate. Many people simply have no need for a one- or two-bedroom apartment. A small cottage or daylight basement is just the ticket. Plus, the tenant gets to participate in the life of the neighborhood.

Often, small gardens are found along back alleys or in side yards where the tenant has access to a small plot of soil. These places can be marvelous little additions to the character of a street or alley.

The neighborhood benefits in that it is more diverse. It has allowed places for a wide variety of people, in different stages of their lives, to live.

This is one way to accommodate growth without radically altering the scale and texture of a neighborhood. Indeed, the scale and texture that result, both physically and socially, are very rich.

Finally, the community as a whole benefits. People on modest incomes are accommodated through the actions of private individuals. No bond issues are required. No agencies need be set up. No sites need be bought and cleared. There will continue to be a need for denser apartments and subsidized housing, but ADUs can relieve some of the pressing need for housing in this region.

Back in the early '90s the state Legislature recognized the wisdom of ADUs and passed a law that applied to all communities exceeding 20,000 in population. The law said that it was the obligation of cities to accommodate ADUs in single-family areas. The issue was not whether to do it, but rather how to do it. This got city councils off the hook; no longer could neighborhood naysayers lobby to block the consideration of such housing.

Fortunately, most cities took their legal responsibility seriously. Codes were changed, standards were developed, and permitting procedures were adopted. In the subsequent years, there have been numerous ADUs permitted throughout the metropolitan area, a sort of "quiet revolution" in urban housing.

Trouble is, many homeowners still do not know that they can add such a unit, nor what they need to do it lawfully. This is where an organization that goes by the acronym ARCH comes in. Its full name is A Regional Coalition for Housing. ARCH is a cooperative effort of most cities within King County. Art Sullivan, program director at ARCH, says about 300 permitted accessory dwelling units have been added in East King County, since the state legislation took effect in 1994. About half of those are on Mercer Island.

He said that about 1,000 units with permits have been added in Seattle during the same time period. No figures are available for the rest of King County.

How-to help available

ARCH has assembled an information kit on ADUs for homeowners. The kit explains big issues such as financing and design, as well as small things such as where to put electrical outlets.

There is both education and advocacy. ARCH wants people to understand how they can simultaneously help both themselves and others in need of a good, decent, well-priced place to live. Starting May 1, ARCH will have a Web site: For now, call 425-861-3677.

Another resource is the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, 206-448-4938. The institute's office at 1911 First Ave. near the Pike Place Market has the portfolios of design firms that can help with layout and permits. AIA Seattle also offers Saturday seminars for the public on how to hire and work with an architect.

With all of this information and assistance at hand, I hope many homeowners will contemplate adding an ADU. We could all benefit as a result.

Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design at LMN Architects.