City leaders converge at PSU to study small backyard homes as affordable housing
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: September 27, 2018

A tour of affordable Portland ADUs helped city teams understand development concepts.

Teams from four cities met last week at Portland State University to study the market forces shaping the demand for accessory dwelling units — or ADUs — and how these small dwellings can provide an affordable housing solution.

Representatives from Washington, D.C., Charlottesville, Va., Seattle, and Portland—all cities where homes and apartments have become very expensive—met at PSU last week to share information and create policy and development plans that they will put into practice in their home cities. The groups share a desire to increase the availability of ADUs to improve affordability, equity, and sustainability in their cities.

The PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) hosted the gathering and recruited regional and national ADU experts to take part in the educational and discussion sessions. ISS, which collaborates with community partners to drive progress toward a more equitable and sustainable world, has spent several years studying small backyard homes for use as affordable housing in partnership with nonprofit organizations, PSU faculty and students, and other groups.

“The cities that came together for this convening are all focused on the potential for ADUs to be leveraged as a solution for affordable housing,” said ISS Executive Director Robert Liberty. “All of these regional groups will be able to learn from each other as we’re working on implementing new models for helping homeowners who want to build ADUs and new approaches to ADU construction, financing, and ownership.”

The September session was developed as part of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator at ISS, which brings together teams of city leaders from across the country to work on common issues related to urban sustainability. Over the coming year, teams from Seattle, Charlottesville, and Washington, D.C., will execute plans to facilitate ADU development in partnership with experts at PSU and in Portland.

One of the ADUs on the tour is home to a formerly houseless single mother. The four-day gathering included sessions on topics including how families can afford to finance ADU construction, regulatory reforms that encourage ADU development, and Multnomah County’s experiment in using ADUs to house the homeless. One afternoon was spent with Kol Peterson, a Portland-based author and ADU expert, who arranged a tour of lower-cost ADUs in Portland neighborhoods. The tour included a visit to a small ADU that was provided to a homeowner as part of the Multnomah County pilot — a place for a formerly homeless single-mom to live.

“The entire program was put together very well,” said Keith Smith a former developer and real estate agent in Charlottesville who also serves on the Thomas Jefferson Community Land Trust board. “But the tour really put everything in perspective.”

Smith said that he came away from his experience in Portland energized about the ways in which the Charlottesville region can work together with the land trust to develop ADUs for use as affordable housing. He hopes it’s a model that will be applicable in other cities.

“This is exciting,” he said. “We can learn a lot of things from one another and from Robert and his team at PSU.”  

Following the learning sessions, each team developed a work plans detailing actions they will take to increase the supply of ADUs, including creating incentives to encourage the use of ADUs for affordable housing and as an opportunity to help low income families increase their incomes and home values. The Urban Sustainability Accelerator staff at ISS will follow up over the course of the year, connecting team members with the resources they need to put their plans into action in their respective cities. Portland will also be testing new ADU development approaches in the coming year.  

ISS invited PSU faculty and community partners who together form the ISS Small Backyard Homes Initiative to join the program. PSU School of Architecture faculty Sergio Palleroni and Margarette Leite met with city teams to share their research on affordable ADU design. Alan DeLaTorre, a research associate with the PSU College of Urban & Public Affairs Institute on Aging, discussed the potential of ADUs to provide aging-in-place and accessibility options. Staff also shared the results of Assistant Professor Matthew Gebhardt’s recent survey of ADU owners and tenants, which informed many of the discussions. The PSU Northwest Economic Research Center shared early research on ADU affordability.  

ISS also brought in national experts from elsewhere in the country to share best practices, including California-based ADU builder Steve Vallejos.

Molly Baer Kramer, the ISS project manager who oversees the Urban Sustainability Accelerator program, says other cities have expressed interest in working with PSU and Portland on ADU development in future program sessions.

“Portland is gaining a reputation for leadership in thinking about the development of these accessory dwellings in a new way,” Kramer said. “From affordable housing to providing homes for the so-called ‘missing middle,’ the potential of ADUs is increasingly catching the attention of housing advocates across the country.”