accessory dwelling unit

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and City Council members are proposing to make it easier for the owners of single-family homes to create accessory dwelling units on their properties.

In the year since Capital Times reporter Nick Garton wrote the groundbreaking story “Affordable for Whom?” on the housing crisis in Madison, progress has been made on a number of fronts. But the fact remains that it is getting harder and harder for low- and moderate-income families to find housing in Madison, where rent.com says the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has now climbed to $1,350, and where the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin says the average price of a home in Dane County right now is $345,000.

As Kurt Paulson, a professor of urban planning at UW-Madison, explained in September — at the Cap Times Idea Fest session, entitled, "Who gets to live here: How does Madison ensure fair access to housing?" — Madison and surrounding Dane County simply are not keeping up with the demand for affordable housing.

"In Dane County, jobs are growing faster than population, and population is growing faster than housing," said Paulsen. "We under produce by about 1,000 (housing) units every year. So that squeeze is felt up and down the price point."

There need to be multiple interventions to address every aspect of the crisis, and we appreciate that there are major initiatives in the works at the federal, state, county and municipal levels. We also appreciate the role that individual homeowners can play in increasing the pool of housing options.

This week, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and three alders who represent rapidly growing parts of the community — District 2’s Patrick Heck, District 13’s Tag Evers and District 15’s Grant Foster — moved to introduce legislation that is designed to make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Madison.

“ADUs, often referred to as granny flats or backyard cottages, are allowed on owner-occupied properties with single-family homes,” explains the city. However, the process of getting these smaller and more affordable units built has been slow and complicated.

The new proposal, which extends from the mayor’s Housing Forward agenda to address both shortages of housing and inequality, would make the construction of these small homes easier by shortening and simplifying the permitting process and by allowing slightly larger units — 900 square feet with two bedrooms.

“Madison has a lot of neighborhoods that are largely comprised of single-family homes. These neighborhoods are often inaccessible to many people in our community,” says Alder Evers. “ADUs by their very nature tend to be more affordable and therefore are a great way to open a neighborhood to new residents.”

We agree. Plan Commission deliberations on this proposal will begin with a Nov. 8 presentation. If all goes well, and we hope it does, the Common Council will vote on the issue Dec. 7.

This is just a small intervention. It will not end the housing crisis in Madison on its own. But it is part of a broader agenda that can, if activists keep pushing and elected officials keep listening, provide the options that are necessary to put the promise of affordable housing in reach for families that have been watching that promise slip away as prices have skyrocketed and options have dwindled.

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