Gov. Kathy Hochul said she wants to expand accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, by requiring local governments to change local zoning laws to encourage more of them. But some local officials are opposed to the state control, saying it could lead to overcrowding and should be left to the local municipalities. Newsday's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — They are called accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — living spaces in converted garages, attics and basements, sometimes referred to as mother-daughter units and granny flats. Some are built in backyards as cottages.

Gov. Kathy Hochul says ADUs can be a quick, lower-cost way to help combat the statewide affordable housing crisis, which is particularly acute on Long Island and in New York City. She wants to expand ADUs by requiring local governments to change local zoning laws to encourage more of them.

The potential benefits of ADUs include creating a new source of income for homeowners in high-cost regions, helping seniors on fixed incomes stay in their family homes, and making housing more affordable for young people. The idea is strongly supported by the builders and real estate industries.

But critics say the state measure would take away control by local governments and groups that have protected residential neighborhoods from overdevelopment and overcrowding, They say the measure would turn single-family streets into stretches of multifamily housing that will bring overcrowding, parking shortages and strains on services such water and sewers.

Housing analysts note that there aren't many options to address the affordability crisis besides the expensive, time-consuming route of building more apartment complexes. They say that while zoning has been used to address overcrowding and the demand for service, it also has been used to restrict minorities from living in certain areas. The devil, they say, would be in the details of such proposals.

Any such measure would still be subject to negotiation with and approval by the State Legislature, either as part of the budget process or as a stand-alone bill.

Hochul sees ADUs as a quick way to chisel away at a crisis.

"Every New Yorker deserves access to affordable housing, whether they are at risk of homelessness or simply struggle to pay the rent on time each month," Hochul said in her Jan. 5 State of the State address. "So many people not only face tremendous economic hardship, but the double hit is that housing prices have also continued to escalate beyond the reach of many, worsening the situation even more."

Hochul’s measure requires that local governments accept ADUs unless extreme safety and health concerns could be proven. Most local governments and homeowners have traditionally opposed ADUs. Her proposal also would grant "amnesty" to illegal ADUs in New York City as leverage to bring them all up to building and safety requirements.

"They can be very good, absolutely," said Judith Breselor, acting executive director of the Albany-based New York Planning Federation, which has trained planning and zoning officials since 1937. "The concept is fine and we really do have a dire need for affordable housing."

But she said ADUs must have limits and local government officials are essential in protecting neighborhoods from becoming overly dense. She also noted seemingly small, but important factors must be considered in each case, such as whether an ADU results in a loss privacy for neighbors. "There are so many questions," she said.

Critics say ADUs are a misguided way to expand affordable housing.

"It’s a very slippery slope and very dangerous," said Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who is running against Hochul for the Democratic nomination for governor. "This is a green light for chaos … and could fundamentally change our lives."

Suozzi said Hochul’s proposal could turn single-family neighborhoods into dense multifamily plots with a shortage of parking and a strain on municipal water, sewer and other resources. And Suozzi notes, local governments wouldn’t be able to stop ADUs.

"We must work on housing," Suozzi said, accusing Hochul pandering to the left. "But taking the power of local government away isn’t the way to do it."

He said he supports converting empty offices into housing and building transit-centered housing on empty parcels around commuter rail stations. Hochul also supports those ideas.

Republican Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and several local leaders held a news conference last week to say ADUs threaten the suburban dream.

"Long Island families work hard to achieve the American dream of homeownership and enjoy a suburban way of life," Blakeman said. "We cannot let the governor destroy suburbia nor turn Nassau County into the sixth borough of New York City."

But Pilar Moya-Mancera, executive director of Housing Help, a nonprofit agency that provides housing and financial assistance, said ADUs can provide essential affordable housing for young families and households that lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as needed income for middle-class households and senior citizens to pay their own rising housing costs.

"Senior citizens are house rich, but cash poor and their income doesn’t change, but their expenses increase significantly," Moya-Mancera said. She said the housing crisis is widespread among income levels, but is most acute among the working poor in communities of color.

The state Association of Towns said it supports the concept of ADUs for rural and urban neighborhoods, but is concerned about the state mandate to limit local governments’ zoning.

"We would rather see something like an incentive for ADU zoning or have various exceptions allowed in the interest of public health, safety and welfare rather than simply overriding local zoning laws," said Sarah Brancatella, legislative director and counsel for the town association.

Just what works best in regulating ADUs is tied up in several issues, including race.

"There is scant research on their prevalence and efficacy as an affordable housing strategy," according to a 2016 report Accessory Dwellings on Long Island by Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.

Researchers found that at least 1.87% of homes sold in Nassau County in a six-month period offered ADUs under different terminology, including "mother-daughter" and "senior residence" units. In Suffolk County, where ADUs are largely legal, about 2.71% of sales included references to ADUs.

Expansion of ADUs would mean more apartments within single-family homes as well as high-end cottages and trendy tiny houses of as little as 200 square feet in backyards. ADUs could create affordable homes for young adults who can’t afford housing prices, which Hochul notes rose 32% since 2020 statewide.

ADUs also can provide income for middle-class families and seniors who want to stay in their homes. Wealthier homeowners could build backyard cottages that could further increase the resale value of their homes.

Race and ethnicity also play a role in legislating ADUs, the Hofstra researchers stated. In communities that allowed ADUs, many of the residents were Black and Latino and they rented ADUs at levels twice that of the group's population in the community and that suggests any legislation "may have an outsized effect on Black- and Latino-headed households."

The researchers said race and ethnicity play a role in some opposition to ADUs. "In communities where some nativist residents have framed the issue of overcrowded housing as an immigration problem, debates over ADU policy may be particularly contentious if they are linked to illegal boardinghouses in single-family neighborhoods," the study stated.

"I think that both the governor as well as some of her critics, like Rep. Suozzi, are right to focus on the details of the ADU because those details can be very significant as to whether those ADUs are meeting minimum housing standards and don’t overstress local resources and infrastructure," said Christopher W. Niedt, an associate professor of applied social research and sociology at Hofstra, and co-author of the report.

"Policies like ADU expansion provide one of the few opportunities for increasing the affordable housing stock," he said. "But I do think the design of those policies have to be developed carefully and incorporate the lessons we learned over the last 40 years of ADU policy."

Niedt told Newsday that whether local governments should be limited in their power to block ADUs "is a difficult question." In addition to the changes ADUs can make on neighborhoods such as parking and density, "sometimes … (local governments) are motivated by architectural considerations, sometimes to restrict people from different classes or groups."

The view in the lobbying world is more certain. Builders and the real estate industry — major lobbyists and campaign contributors to Hochul and legislators — strongly support the measure.

ADUs aren’t new. Many were created during the Great Depression and through World War II out of necessity in hard times and, for the wealthy, as servant quarters or guesthouses. ADU’s continued to be created in the 1950s, although often illegally as communities adopted zoning laws that required many neighborhoods to be used only for construction of single-family homes as communities sought to plan development.

"As the nation’s affordable housing crisis intensifies, there is a growing movement in high-cost areas for the legalization and expansion of accessory dwelling units," according to Freddie Mac, the company chartered by Congress in 1970 to promote affordable mortgages nationwide. "ADUs, such as Fonzie’s above-garage apartment in the 1974 to 1984 television sitcom ‘Happy Days,’ and Jesse and Rebecca’s attic conversion in the 1987 to 1995 television sitcom ‘Full House,’ have been making appearances in pop culture television shows for decades."

California last year further encouraged ADUs in legislation that turned garages into small showpieces of suburban living often in upscale neighborhoods.

In New York, several legislators are trying to bring that West Coast vibe here.

In a bill nearly identical to Hochul’s proposal, legislators would expand ADUs under state Human Rights Law. That bill languished in the legislature last year, but revisions were made in December. Now, with several powerful co-sponsors, the bill was reintroduced to Senate and Assembly committees on the day of Hochul’s State of the State speech.

The primary sponsors, Sen. Pete Harckham (D-Peekskill) and Assemb. Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), said the measure would "create tens of thousands of new, affordable homes while giving homeowners the opportunity to earn new sources of income."

"This legislation," Harckham said, "will benefit our communities by providing seniors with added income to pay their bills and gray in place while also making affordable housing available to first responders, teachers, working families and young professionals."

According to Hochul’s budget bill for the “Accessory Dwelling Unit Act of 2022,” the measure would:

  • Authorize the creation of at least one accessory dwelling unit per lot.”
  • Require local governments to adopt a local law allowing expansion of ADUs. Local governments can’t block ADUs by saying they are too large or too small.
  • Allow a homeowner to sue a local government to uphold the state law.
  • The unit may be rented, but couldn’t be sold separate of the original home on the parcel.
  • Prohibit local governments from denying construction of pathways to the ADU unless there is a proven health and safety concern.
  • “No parking requirement shall be imposed” unless there is no nearby street parking
  • A local government can’t require off-street parking even if an ADU replaces a garage or carport.
  • Exclude ADU’s from “allowable residential density” or open space laws and ADU’s “shall not be considered” in the application of any regulation, policy or program to “limit residential growth.”
  • Prohibit using ADUs only for seasonal or vacation use.
  • Provides state funding to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers to create ADUs.

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