The city of Atlanta’s first-ever Affordable Housing Week concluded with a seminar on how to create accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that spotlighted the often prohibitive challenges to building backyard tiny homes, garage-topping apartments units, and guest houses on land typically designated for single-family residences.

“They are extra difficult to permit and actually construct,” Jim Cheeks, the chief executive of homebuilder Fortas Homes, said of ADUs on Feb. 16. “And financing is one of the most difficult things when doing accessory dwelling units.”

The vast majority of residential land in Atlanta is zoned for single-family development, the suburban-style practice of building one house — and absolutely nothing else — on one parcel.

Housing experts, however, say that one key way to confront the city’s persistent housing affordability crisis is to embrace density and build more dwellings on less land. ADUs offer a solution that’s often seen as less intrusive to single-family residential neighborhoods than, say, apartment buildings.

On the few properties where they are allowed, ADUs are required by city law to span no more than 750 square feet. The limitations hardly end there, a panel of housing industry professionals made clear during the city planning department’s event last week.

“ADUs are so important,” said Sanaa Shaikh, an architectural project manager with Kronberg Urbanists + Architects. But they’re still rare, she said, because of the multitude of regulations imposed by the city’s housing and zoning codes — and because there is often community resistance in longtime single-family areas.

ADUs can only be 20 feet high, they can’t cover more than 25% of a backyard, and they must be detached from a single-family home. It can be hard to find an architect who understands Atlanta’s complex and restrictive zoning laws and a contractor willing to build one, Shaikh said.

Even if a homeowner or developer can field a team of zoning and permitting experts and a construction crew knowledgeable about ADUs, navigating a project site can be cumbersome. Labor costs go up if it’s tough to get building materials into a backyard.

“I typically don’t take those jobs anymore,” Cheeks said of projects that require trucks to squeeze down tight driveways or, worse, drop piles of wood in the front yard and force crews to lug them to the project’s footprint. He much prefers corner-lot jobs.

And, of course, in the so-called “city in the forest,” tree placement can also pose roadblocks, Cheeks and Shaikh said.

Shaikh called trees a “hugely important” part of the planning and design process, because a development cannot lawfully displace trees on property lines. There are other costs associated with uprooting trees, such as fines or replanting fees.

It’s best to enlist an arborist to assess a property and determine if trees in the way might be “dead, dying, or hazardous,” she added. But that of course adds to a project’s price tag.

On top of all that, getting the financing to build an ADU can be a headache, too, because the model remains so foreign to many banks. Panelist Yulanda Munford, a mortgage operations manager for Citizens Trust Bank, said that loan applications “are going to be looked at under a magnifying glass, and it’s going to be time-consuming.”

“It comes with a case-by-case scenario” for loan underwriters, she said, depending on whether would-be tiny home developers need to purchase property, whether a single-family home already exists on it, and what they want to build.

“Put your patience hat on,” Munford said.

Section 8 possibilities

If a homeowner or developer hurdles all these obstacles and actually succeeds in building an ADU, “it’s time to start making money,” said Jason Winton, the director of inspection services for Atlanta Housing (AH), the city’s public housing authority.

While most developers — including those who build ADUs — don’t end up producing units priced for Atlanta’s lowest-income residents, that’s often a readily available option for new landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers, he said.

Atlanta Housing is “always looking for qualified landlords,” said Inyo Cue, a project manager for Atlanta’s City Planning Department, at an earlier Affordable Housing Week event.

Most ADU owners and operators charge market rents, but there’s a sense of comfort offered only by government-backed rental income, said AH’s Winton.

He said it’s “pretty easy” to apply for the Housing Choice Voucher Program offered by AH through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “but there are also a lot of stigmas associated with Section 8 voucher tenants” by many landlords.

Those worries are overblown, Winton said. Only 1% of AH’s cause serious property damage, and even so, he added, “We have an insurance plan for that.”

Winton said the promise of stable market-rate rental income (because the government makes up the rent difference for tenants) offsets the slight risk. “We pay on time, so you’re not knocking on doors, chasing down the rent,” he said.

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2 Comments

  1. I'm always concerned that ADUs will add to the Short Term Rental inventory instead of being built to increase availability of full-time-residential properties.
    Is the ADU conversation about increasing residential density or is it about vacation rentals?
    Can somebody please be pro-active to avoid negative consequences of ADU and STR legislation caused by transient occupancy in ADUs that are used as STRs in residential neighborhoods?

  2. Atlanta Housing does not pay on time. That is a common complaint of landlords. Also passing an inspection with old school HUD requirements for units can be burdensome. AH customer service ain’t the best either. While they say they desperate for more units, see how quick they return a call/email.

    I’m terms of zoning, why not add in duplex properties and allow for more
    Than 2 units per lot? Like everything in atlanta, feels half hearted. The legislation was written more for wealthy homeowners to add place for guests
    And Airbnb than to increase housing supply

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