This interesting New York Times article “Staying in the Family Home May Mean Taking Others In” mentions the Ann Arbor city council vote two years ago against allowing homeowners to construct “granny flats” in basements, attics, or additions to their houses. The story is about a proposal to legalize these apartments in San Francisco:

” […] Many other cities have already loosened restrictions that prohibit the apartments. Some 65,000 to 300,000 granny flats are springing up in cities and suburbs every year, with or without local sanction, according to a study sponsored by AARP. Self-contained, with private entrances, kitchens and baths, they can be built into a garage or tucked into a basement, or they can stand as a cottage in the backyard.

Proponents argue that granny flats are relatively inexpensive solutions for homeowners who need help with their mortgages, while offering affordable housing to people desperate for it. They can also provide housing for aging relatives who want to retain their independence while living close to a family member.

But opponents see such add-on apartments as an assault on neighborhoods designed around the “Leave It to Beaver” ideal.

“In some ways we’re dealing with the sacred character of the single-family house,” said Robert Fishman, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

In San Francisco, where officials estimate that about 20,000 illegal apartments are harbored within houses, a rapid acceleration in prices has made houses with rental apartments more attractive.

It is a debate heating up across the country. In Ann Arbor, Mich., neighbors killed a proposal last year to simplify the permit process for new granny flats.

“We didn’t move to the suburbs so we could live in the city,” said Suzi Cassone, 63, a library clerk. Ms. Cassone said that an illegal apartment in her neighbor’s house had created noise problems and more competition for parking.

Homeowners also fear that by adding rental units, neighbors will bring in students, young professionals on the move or others who will be less invested in the community than the typical homeowner.

“I think there is also an undercurrent of fear that these units will attract people who are undesirable for the community,” said Aaron Peskin, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who proposed the law that would legalize new granny flats.

Granny flats were once an American tradition. In some urban neighborhoods of the late 19th and early 20th century, architects included two or three units in town houses to accommodate extended families. Wealthy families in rural communities built separate apartments in their homes or backyard carriage houses for their help.

But by the 1950’s, the prevailing ideal in many suburbs was not mixed housing but the single-family home. Most communities created zoning barriers to added apartments or outlawed them altogether. […] ”

However, I think the story unfairly implies U-M Prof. Robert Fishman is an “opponent,” however he’s a member of the Congress of New Urbanism, a strong advocate of allowing apartments in houses. I think these make good sense if properly planned: they increase the amount and variety of housing available, and give homeowners a small but significant source of income.

To read more about the granny flat issue here in Ann Arbor, check out this blog post from August, or read the story I wrote about it for the Daily. A note – although the Ann Arbor city council ultimately nixed the proposall unanimously after some fear-mongering by a neighborhood association sent a deluge of letters to the members, not every part of city government was swayed: it had been approved by the city’s planning commission.

Author: Rob