Can McMansions Help Solve Our Housing Crisis?comments (27) December 20th, 2010 in Blogs
"Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."
Poor McM's. They were the source of such ownerly pride when HOUSING with a big H was in flower, and now you can't give them away. Very likely, there is a disproportionate number of Big Boxes among the 18.8 million housing units now standing empty. And among green-thinking folks, let us admit, there is more than a whiff of "I told you so."
But now that so many sit empty, what should we do-raze them? In a time of stubbornly high rents and massive homelessness, that would be even more wasteful than building them in the first place. As a retired contractor buddy of mine puts it, "There is no housing shortage in America; what we have is a housing distribution problem."
Carve out a second home
So here's what I'd propose as one element of a national housing solution. When buildings beyond a certain size come up for sale-especially foreclosed or distressed sales-allow the new owners to create a second unit.
The trigger size for such a contingency could be tailored to each city or region but let's say, for sake of argument, any house larger than 2500 sq.ft. A house that size would allow a new owner to carve out a primary residence of 1750 sq.ft. and a 750-sq.ft. second unit-the maximum in-law footprint in many towns. (To those who say that a primary residence of 1750 sq.ft. is too small: In 1950 , the average single-family home for 3.4 people was roughly 1100 sq.ft.)
Three reasons to believe
My suggestion is going to drive a lot of people nuts, especially stringent zoning adherents, but properly done, second units could do a whole lot of good.
First, in-laws are one way to provide affordable housing for many working people who are priced out of the towns they serve: teachers, firefighters, clerks and the like.
Second, creating a second dwelling is a great use of under-utilized properties. I don't think I need to spell out the virtues of infill to regular Green Building Advisor readers. In short, a slightly greater density enables municipalities to more cost-effectively maintain their infrastructures.
Third, especially in hard-hit areas, the additional income from an in-law unit might make it possible for a buyer to afford a property-and thus help slow the decline of a neighborhood.
Liberals and libertarians in bed together?
I could list benefits till the cows come home. But blogs are best brief, so let me speak to a few objections that some of my more conservative friends sometimes raise.
"Riff-raff will move in and my property values will tank." OK, then let's do what many thoughtful communities have done: Require that owners live on the property if they've got an in-law unit. Live-in owners take care selecting tenants and keep up their property.
"I don't want a backyard cottage looking into my yard." If a lot is big enough, there are many ways to achieve privacy. But since we're talking about houses with a lot of room, the municipality could stipulate that an in-law unit had to be within the existing footprint of the house-or contiguous to it. That would enable an owner to convert an attic or basement, or carve-out an in-law unit entirely within the house footprint. Or allow a modest bump-out. There are plenty of ways to make it work if there's a will. Moreover, most of these in-law configurations are cost-effective because they require fewer materials than a stand-alone unit. In fact, one could make the case that creating an in-law unit is the greenest way to provide an additional dwelling unit.
"I don't want my tax dollars, etc. etc." This is perhaps the clincher in a time when cities and states are strapped for cash, yet must provide a certain number of affordable housing units. Because homeowners are paying for the remodel, they're creating affordable housing without costing taxpayers a dime. Verily, it's a situation where, politically anyhow, the lamb can lie down with the lion-and the libertarian with the liberal.
The whole enchilada
The final piece needed to encourage the creation of second units-reforming the patchwork of zoning codes-we'll leave for a future blog. The AARP, for one, has done some ground-breaking research in this area because more enlightened zoning laws would be a great help to seniors who want to better use the equity in their homes-to stay in their homes, deal with medical bills and so on.
So what's your take?
Create Your Own In-Law!
If you're interested in second units, please check out my recent book, Outlaws and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes. The Library Journal named it one of the 10 Best Design Books for 2011. You can get an e-book version on Apple's iTunes Store, or on the Taunton Press Store. You can also sample In-laws, Outlaws' lush color photos at www.cozydigz.com
If you will be renovating a home, there's no better companion than Renovation 4th Edition, (November, 2012). Its 614 pages, 1,000 photos and 250 detailed illustrations cover home renovation from start to finish and contains lifetimes of practical, field-tested techniques that professional builders shared with me over a 40-year period.
© Michael Litchfield 2012
posted in: Blogs, green building, accessory dwelling unit, in-law unit, ADUs, second unit, mother-in-law suite
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About the Author
Mike Litchfield was a founding editor of Fine Homebuilding and has been renovating homes or writing about them for more than 30 years.
He was one of the first technical journalists to go to job sites to gather information from tradespeople and his great work, Renovation: A Complete Guide is in its 3rd Edition.
Mike’s tenth book, In-laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats: Turning one house into two homes will be published by Taunton Press in March, 2011. To preview the book and learn more about its contributors, please visit www.cozydigz.com