Additions to existing homes may be a ‘starting point’ to more affordable housing
In 2016, Debbie O'Brien and her family learned her husband, Hugh O’Brien, had been diagnosed with cancer.
The couple wanted to appreciate every moment they had left together. Hugh O’Brien, a sailor who enjoyed exercise, had a great love for family.
Their living arrangements made the togetherness they sought possible. The O’Briens reside in their Mystic home with their daughter Megan, 24, who works at the Mystic Aquarium.
The couple decided to add a 780-square-foot accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, onto their Colonial-style home on Mystic Hill Road for Debbie’s parents, Donna Weeks, 80, and Jim Weeks, 82, who wanted to downsize from their Mystic condo. The addition was possible under the town’s expansion of ADU regulations in 2021.
Hugh O’Brien died in 2019 at age 56.
Accessory dwelling units, also referred to as accessory apartments, are small residential units ― such as garage apartments or mother-in-law suites ― that can be attached or detached from a home. To some, they represent a solution to the state’s lack of affordable housing.
In 2021, the Connecticut General Assembly passed Act 21-29, which broadened property owners’ ability to construct apartments and accessory units without special permits or hearings. The law was intended to expand affordable housing efforts statewide.
Peter Harrison, the director of Desegregate Connecticut, an affordable housing advocacy group, said he thinks the broadening of ADUs has been a positive step in providing more housing options. However, there are major setbacks that are limiting that goal.
“Even if you allow accessory dwelling units in all residential zones, great, but if you have an owner-occupancy requirement (saying) it has to be a blood relation, family member or coworker, that really limits the impact of accessory dwelling units,” Harrison said.
Of the 169 state municipalities, only 54 opted into the provision, according to a report from Desegregate Connecticut. A majority of New London County municipalities opted out, including New London, Stonington, Norwich, Montville and Old Lyme, though many already allow some form of ADU.
Groton is one of the few municipalities that adopted Act 21-29. However, the town has allowed ADUs, since 1992, according to the town’s Assistant Director of Planning and Development Services Deborah Jones. The adoption of the act has increased maximum ADU size to 1,000-square-feet, from the previous 800-square-feet restriction.
Jones said ADUs are primarily used for in-law living and have not had an impact on broadly expanding affordable housing.
“We certainly haven’t seen a drop in housing costs,” said Jones.
The Town of Groton has received five ADU applications this year and five applications in 2022.
Currently, a single-family home in Stonington must have a minimum of 2,000 square feet to be eligible for addition of an ADU. The units themselves can’t exceed 1,100 square feet and must meet building, water and safety restrictions.
As of October, only two ADU applications have been submitted this year.
Stonington is looking to loosen its ADU regulations, according to Stonington town planner Clifton J. IIer. He said that although the town did not adopt Act 21-29, officials have met this week, in hopes of updating regulations.
To families like the O’Briens, ADUs have strengthened their relationship by allowing three generations to share one address. During a recent visit in their Mystic home, Donna and Jim Weeks showed no indication of slowing down.
From her kitchen, Donna cooks a multitude of Italian dishes like rollatini, as well as “the best potato salad in the world.” They host family and friends frequently, and their guests show interest in their unique home. Their unit offers standard amenities, including a full-sized kitchen, pantry and living room.
“Every single one of my friends has either come over to tour it or has brought like, their parents to come and see it. Because I think it's on everyone's radar that this is going to be something that is going to be an option for them in the future,” Debbie O’Brien said.
Aging in place
In Niantic, Kerry Edwards, 51, parks in the driveway of her home on Joyce Court and greets her partner, Tom Yankura, 51, and her parents, Rich and Debbie Cook, both 77, after a day of teaching at Oswegatchie Elementary School.
Edwards’ parents live in a 1,100-square-foot ADU that was designed to resemble their Florida home in which they reside during winter months.
The ADU’s windows allow for an abundance of natural light, making the space feel large and comfortable. It’s equipped with a full-sized kitchen, dining room and two bedrooms.
Similar to Stonington, Niantic permits accessory units as long as they do not exceed 1,200 square feet, or 25 percent of the primary home’s square footage. They must also have an independent kitchen and bathroom, blend with the architectural style of the rest of the property and adhere to fire and sewage regulations.
Rich and Debbie Cook said they decided to move into their unit in 2021 after selling their home on Crescent Beach. The couple felt they needed to downsize to a one-story home as the upkeep and maintenance became too much for them.
The family’s bond is immense and they say they value every moment they spend together. Having a separate space to cook, entertain and live while being under a familiar roof brings solace to Debbie Cook.
“The idea of being able to have a family dinner every night — there’s nothing better than that,” she said.
Although Harrison said he believes accessory dwelling units are a start to more affordable neighborhoods, he sees it as just a first step to broader mixed-use housing in the state.
ADUs are relatively costly to build. The O’Briens’ ADU cost them $200,000, or $256 per square foot. For comparison, the median home price per square foot is $200 in New London County, according to Redfin, a real estate listing company. The Cooks’ 1,100-square-foot unit totaled $250,000, or $227 a square foot.
This cost is a barrier to more affordable housing. Although ADUs broaden housing options, they aren’t a panacea to affordability, according to Harrison.
“Accessory dwelling units are a really good starting point. They're sort of jokingly referred to as the gateway drug of zoning (for affordable housing). But by itself, it's not going to solve a crisis, but making it legal and more accessible to everybody anywhere is going to actually help,” Harrison said.