Pittsburgh looks to ‘in-law suites’ to reduce affordable housing deficit
By next month, Pittsburgh may know whether renovating basements and building granny flats could ease the city’s affordable housing shortage.
And Brian Gaudio – along with other potential homeowners like him – might find out if a grandparent, stepfather or proverbial tenant will be allowed to move in downstairs.
Gaudio’s home in Garfield also serves as the office for Module, the housing design-build company he runs. Two offices on the ground floor are in a combined kitchen-living room with a hallway leading to a bed and a bathroom. The space is ready to be rented out as a secondary suite [ADU] as soon as it is legal.
“I think a city that has legal ADUs is a signal that it’s a progressive place to develop and build. It’s almost a signal that this city is in the 21st century when it comes to zoning,” Gaudio said. .
ADUs are compact and relatively affordable units that can be installed in a primary residence like Gaudio’s or in a freestanding building on a property. They’ve emerged in cities like Boston and Chicago to help provide low-cost rentals, but have really taken hold on the West Coast.
In Los Angeles, one in four homes built last year was an ADU. That probably hasn’t been the case in Pittsburgh for nearly a century.
Under legislation introduced by Councilwoman Deb Gross and passed last month, the Department of Planning and the Department of Permits, Licensing and Inspections must report on current ADUs, as well as potential incentives and regulatory changes that could make them prevalent again.
The report is due to council by November 23, although Gross told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that might be ambitious for the busy planning department.
“We’re just trying to be methodical and take it one step at a time and present this set of shared facts to everyone so they can learn and see if it works for Pittsburgh,” Gross told PublicSource.
Strong regional demand is yet to come. Dormont remains hopeful that ADUs could help stifle soaring home prices, but the borough hasn’t received a permit application since updating its zoning code to allow them in June 2021.
Evidence from other cities shows challenges not only in encouraging UDA adoption, but also in ensuring benefits are not concentrated on affluent households who can afford construction costs.
Proponents recognize a series of pitfalls with these units, but anticipate clear benefits with carefully crafted legislation.
Chris Rosselot, policy director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, said professionals working on budgets, homeowners looking to supplement their mortgages and family members on fixed incomes would all benefit.
“Considering an increase in ADUs would certainly help solve the affordable housing crisis we find ourselves in, but it’s not the only answer,” Rosselot said.
A return to form
Secondary suites are not uncommon in Pittsburgh.
Zillow Online Real Estate Marketplace lists several Pittsburgh properties built prior to the first citywide zoning ordinance in 1923 as having “in-law suites”, one of many colloquial terms for ADUs.
Houses that share land with another property but do not face the main residential street are common in some parts of the city. According to Gross, a large majority of these “alley houses” were built before the advent of modern zoning, and they form a significant part of the housing stock in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville.
“Fast forward 100 years and I also have people from Morningside and Highland Park who tried to [build an alley house] and I had to jump all these hoops and go through all this paperwork,” Gross said.
There is nothing illegal about the concept of separate dwellings on the same lot, but homeowners in single-family zones cannot rent out their renovated garages or basements under current ordinances.
A change in zoning laws could be a full circle moment for Pittsburgh and restore “the density to what our neighborhoods once were,” said Andrew Dash, deputy director of city planning.
Struggles in Garfield
For all the measured optimism from government and advocacy groups, a recent pilot effort in the city warns of barriers to widespread adoption of ADU.
The terms of the expired program suggest what permanent, more expansive legislation might look like. It required units to be under 800 square feet, limited to two stories, and owned by one occupant of the primary residence. The city also waived on-site parking requirements and put a 30-day minimum on ADU leases.
BGC executive director Rick Swartz viewed the program as a tool to increase density in the neighborhood’s single-family area and make homeownership “a more affordable proposition” for lower-middle-income residents.
In the end, the pilot produced only two permits and no construction, although the permits remain valid.
The additional units did not materialize, partly for fear of land reassessmentsSwartz said, but also due to an untimely overlap with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Construction costs weighed on ADU efforts in other cities. With little to no subsidies available in Pittsburgh for this type of development, low-income homeowners might be hesitant to borrow funds to fund ADU construction, according to Swartz.
Swartz added that some residents, believing the pilot project would cause the market rate to develop, voiced their opposition during city council hearings on the legislation.
“I think everything has to be projected in a way that the average Pittsburgher can understand what the intent of what we’re trying to do here is,” Swartz said.
“If the city can give it another try, [BGC] would definitely jump on board.
No Airbnbs, please
The Garfield legislation had little impact, but set precedents that supporters find important for future legislation.
Demi Kolke, senior program manager for Neighborhood Allies, said owner-occupancy requirements could prevent large developers or absentee owners from entering the ADU market.
“By having an ADU on your property, you’re going to be there, you’re going to be present,” Kolke said. “It could really be a game-changer.”
Wary of short-term rentals like Airbnbs, Rosselot praised the 30-day minimum rental clause.
Done right, ADUs could preserve generational wealth by allowing aging parents to share homes with their children, for example, and keep the property within the family.
Alternative funding from groups like Bridgeway Capital and the Urban Redevelopment Authority could help lower-income neighborhoods get in on the action. And design patterns could make the zoning review process more predictable while limiting pre-development costs.
“If we’re serious about affordable housing in Pittsburgh,” Gaudio said, “which we as a city say we’re serious about, then we need to look at how to add density to single-family zoning.”
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