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Thursday, October 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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ADU interest on the rise in Southwest Washington

Tristan Graham, 32, sits on his couch in his new accessory dwelling unit, which was built in his parents’ backyard near Five Corners. Construction took five months. (Nathan Howard / Columbian)
Tristan Graham, 32, sits on his couch in his new accessory dwelling unit, which was built in his parents’ backyard near Five Corners. Construction took five months. (Nathan Howard / Columbian)
By Patty Hastings Columbian

Tristan Graham, a 32-year-old training instructor for the Transportation Security Administration at Portland International Airport, got a fitting housewarming gift from his dad: A rug made from old PDX carpet. His new home near Five Corners happens to be in his parents’ backyard.

The 799-square-foot accessory dwelling unit was built after Clark County updated its codes earlier this year, making ADUs easier and cheaper to build. Kent Graham, 65, said the changes – particularly the 75 percent reduction in transportation, park and school impact fees for urban ADUs – saved him thousands of dollars. The two-story ADU cost about $140,000. Camas-based contractor John Mihaiuc with I.M. Plumbing & General Contracting started building in March, a few weeks after the changes went into effect.

The city of Vancouver also made changes to its ADU policies a little more than a year ago. Both jurisdictions aimed to relax standards on ADUs, otherwise known as granny flats, in-law suites or backyard cottages, so more would be built. They are seen as one way to create more housing options without changing a neighborhood’s character.

“The more creative the builders can be … it helps the entire picture,” said Stephanie Frisch, spokeswoman for the Building Industry Association of Clark County.

Have the code changes actually resulted in more ADUs? The data, so far, says yes.

Between 1999 and June 2017, the county issued 22 permits for ADUs, an average of just more than one per year. Since the changes went into effect March 2, there have been 13 permits issued. It’s a similar story in Vancouver, where ADUs are more common. According to a mid-August memo, prior to the code update 85 permits had been permitted in Vancouver since 2000. Since the amendments became effective in September 2017, the city has permitted 39 ADUs.

Kent Graham said he started the process of getting an ADU built on his property in the county in February but held off until the changes were enacted.

“I was surprised at how fast it went,” he said.

Construction took five months. Tristan Graham has been living in the unit for about a month and likes the modern space. He invested in space-efficient furniture, such as a drop-leaf table and a bed with storage drawers. And, he decorated with posters of places he’s lived: Hawaii, Sydney, Australia and Sendai, Japan.

“Japan was nice to live in, but I had a really tiny apartment,” he said. “This feels big compared to that. I think it’s the right size for a single person or two people.”

Lower-cost alternative

Tristan Graham had started saving a while ago to buy his own house. He calculated that with his salary he’d someday be able to afford an older, small house in an OK neighborhood.

Single-family homes in Clark County are expensive. The median price for local residential listings is $367,400, according to broker Mike Lamb’s September Clark County Market Report. Having an ADU built meant he got a new-construction home near – very near – his family.

He pays $950 in monthly rent to live in the ADU.

“The goal is to be able to help families like that who want it as an option,” said John Blom, the county councilor who initially proposed the county’s ADU code update.

Blom, who also works as a broker in Oregon and Washington for Hasson Company Realtors, said ADUs were never intended to be a complete solution to the area’s lack of affordable housing, but they do relieve some pressure. The West Coast, he said, is catching up in developing this kind of housing, which is more common in other areas of the country.

“It’s unfortunate that the (housing) prices are what’s driving them,” he said.

Mitch Nickolds, the county’s community development director, said most ADUs are occupied by families like the Grahams.

“ADUs meet a legitimate and essential affordable housing need,” he said.

Nickolds is confident ADUs and RADUs (rural accessory dwelling units) will continue to play a role in building the housing supply. In terms of where they’re being built, he said they’re “scattered far and wide” across the county. Many homeowners see them as a way to generate short- or long-term rental income.

Kent Graham said that’s his plan for the ADU whenever Tristan moves out, and it’s one reason they had a keypad, rather than a traditional lock, installed on the door. It can be reprogrammed for each new tenant.

ADU concerns

Revising codes to encourage ADUs wasn’t universally popular.

Former Vancouver Councilor Jack Burkman was concerned about taking away the owner-occupancy requirements, which were nixed in both the county and city. He thought it set up single-family neighborhoods to have a lot of rental duplexes, and that units could become short-term rentals for tourists rather than places for people to live long term.

City Councilor Alishia Topper, a major supporter of Vancouver’s ADU code update, said she’s proud of the changes and other ideas that were generated from the Affordable Housing Task Force that met in 2015.

One thing she’d like to see is the city generate a handful of stock ADU designs. Homeowners are spending a lot of money on architects and engineers to come up with their own plans, she said.

“For me, owning a property that could accommodate an ADU, that would make it feasible,” Topper said.

The main issue Vancouver resident Amanda Smith had with the city’s previous ADU regulations was that they would have limited the maximum size of her ADU to 408 square feet. That would have been too small for her 65-year-old mother, who is retiring and moving from Southern California.

“She’ll need some additional care as she gets older,” said Smith, 40, who’s owned her home in the East Minnehaha neighborhood for 13 years.

The new code increased the maximum size of ADUs to 50 percent of the main house. Smith was able to have a 501-square-foot home built. Shades of cyan — her mom’s favorite color — are seen in details throughout the home. Pocket doors separate the bedroom from the rest of the space. The ADU will be featured in the Columbia Credit Union Remodeled Homes Tour happening Oct. 20-21.

It’s ironic for builder Dave Myllymaki, founder of Battle Ground-based ReNew Creations.

“Five years ago I had never even heard of an ADU. I didn’t know what it was,” he said.

Now, ADUs have become a significant part of his business. He’s working on an attached accessory dwelling unit on Prune Hill in Camas. Myllymaki said that in the more rural parts of the county he’s not allowed to build detached ADUs because of a requirement in the state’s land-use law.

“I understand why, but it doesn’t mean I like it,” Myllymaki said.

Mihaiuc, the Grahams’ ADU builder, said people can use ADUs in so many different ways. He started building the small structures in Portland where they’re more popular. But, he thinks it’s gotten to a point where local contractors could carve out a niche building ADUs.

“Especially now with the housing market being so hot, they’re a great alternative to buying a traditional home,” Mihaiuc said in an email. “While I was building Tristan’s ADU, I had several people from the neighborhood express interest in having one built.”

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