In Praise of Granny Flats

Northwest Lower Michigan is gaining population overall, but its numerous small towns are losing people as the average household size shrinks. Average household size in the 10-county region plunged from 3.28 people per dwelling in 1970 to 2.48 in 2000. About two-thirds of the region’s households consist of only one or two people.

Some local officials are trying to revive the local tradition of “granny flats,” “carriage houses,” or “mortgage helpers,” in which homeowners rented out small backyard or upstairs units. Common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the practice offered significant benefits to the homeowner, who earned a supplementary source of income, and to the renter, who paid a modest rent to live in a neighborhood he otherwise could not afford.

As Carolyn Kelly observes in an article published by the Michigan Land Use Institute, however, special interests agitated against the granny flats. In Traverse City:

Some residents, landlords, and realtors — including several with an interest in keeping rental markets tight — raise fears about crime and blight to make their case. Some say that granny flats will bring more renters into their neighborhoods; others that the flats will change the character of the community, lead to all sorts of parking problems, and bring more single people to neighborhoods that are zoned for single families.

But the accessory building units are enjoying a revival. The logic is compelling:

Cities and towns have a shortage of quality, right-sized housing for people who live alone or in pairs. With America’s average household size falling, more singles and couples are forced to move into homes that have too much room. This not only wastes some of their rent or mortgage money, it also leaves lots of unused bedroom space, which effectively pushes down that community’s population.

Virginia, too, once had a strong tradition of granny flats, carriage houses and basement apartments. Those types of rentals are much rarer now, and almost unknown in the suburbs. I’m not sure exactly why, but I suspect it has a lot to do with zoning codes and subdivision covenants. Virginians need to revisit the idea. Households are shrinking in size her as well, and there is a paucity of economical dwelling space for many.

Aside from addressing the Affordable and Accessible Housing Crisis, a major plus, permitting more flexibility in residential rentals would help build stronger, tighter-knit communities. A revival of granny flats would help dissolve the demographic monocultures in suburban areas that segregate households by age, income and family type. Finally, I would add a moral/ethical argument: As long as they’re not inconveniencing their neighbors, people should have the right to share their houses with whomever they want, under whatever economic arrangement they want.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


10 responses to “In Praise of Granny Flats”

  1. Freedom Works Avatar
    Freedom Works

    Good points.

    Blame zoning – government interference in the housing market.

    In the Clifton area of Fairfax County the government destroyed the livelihood of an older woman who had been making ends meet by renting out the old farmhouse on her property. It seems that on her 5 plus acre property a new house had been built while keeping the old farmhouse. Then instead of being demolished, the old rundown farmhouse was renovated. She lived off the income from renting out the farmhouse, until County Zoning officials stepped in and forced her to make her tenant move out.

    The County goes to great lengths to preserve its technical zoning limits of one dwelling unit per 5 acres in this vast area of Fairfax County. Apparently accessory dwelling units are limited to the rich and reserved for their on site maid or caretaker. Of course, those types of tenants couldn’t pay the rent this elderly woman was getting.

    McConnell was the Supervisor, so I am glad to see her retire.

    One advantage of the illegal immigration to America is the disruption of the unjust status quo in zoning. Many of these immigrants have a greater sense of private property rights and housing freedom than our existing government allows.

    Zoning codes that restrict a house to no more than 4 unrelated people don’t mean much when you have just come from a shantytown.

    Kudos to the world’s poor for showing us how selfish our zoning laws and exclusionary suburbs are.

  2. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    Excellent post, Jim! And Freedom Works, I like your’s too.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’ve seen at least 3 recent examples of this being allowed in my county, one in a long-time established older neighborhood and one in a 5 acre subdivision.

    In all cases, infrastructure availability and provisioning were issues.

    For instance – off street parking was part of the approval requirements as well as water/sewer hookups.

    From the localities point of view -they have a responsibility to other taxpayers to have every new resident pay their fair share of what it costs to provide them with infrastructure and services.

    Beyond those mentioned, we have schools, libraries, parks, EMS and not the least of which is roads.

    When localities plan – do capacity planning – they assume land density to determine costs.

    For instance, single family homes are planned for at the rate of 10 auto trips per day.

    Ditto for water/sewer. When a subdivision is designed – there is an asumption made with respect to how much water/sewer capacity will be needed – based – again – on the land-use purpose and density.

    This issue, by the way, comes up with redeveloment including TOD and other higher density re-use.

    You just cannot plop down triple or quadruple density without consequences to the existing infrastructure.

    So back to the five acre – two homes deal.

    How would the infrastructure be affected – especially if the idea is to go back and not only set a precedent but, in fact, decide that higher density development will be supported.

    The simple view is that their are planning “nazis” .. “out there” who, for no good reason, make ridiculous rules – but the reality is that – it is really about the premises made when planning is done.

    The very first and most vocal of the whiners and complainers would be developers if a locality decided that because their infrastructure was overwhelmed that they would have to institute a moratorium.. and yet the development community would be just fine with what are, infratructrure-evading.. development opportunities.

    I wish.. boy do I wish.. we could have some plain old honesty in the dialgoue sometimes.

    It’s about the infrastructure folks.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    part of this has to do with the profound changes we have seen in settlement patterns in the last 30-40 years.

    It used to be a country of many places… scattered in more uniform patterns.. even the urban areas.

    It was do to an economy that had substantial manufacturing that needed infrastructure (like rail) more than it needed to be located near a city.

    As long as the area it wanted to locate had the infrastructure and a high-school educated workforce – the business model would “work”.

    Now we have a service economy – almost 80% of our jobs are NOT manufacturing and what employers need is not only a higher-educated workforce but a labor pool itself that is larger… so urban areas are the location of choice – more and more.. as our manufacturing dries up.. smaller towns are left without major employers.. and the children grow up.. go off and get educated.. and then resetlle in an urban area.

    This puts tremendous strain on housing in and around the urban areas – truly ironic – when you consider the huge availability of cheap housing in these old towns – now economically “standed”.

    This, in turn, drives the price of land up and the price of housing up – from sheer market demand but it also puts tremendous strain on the infrastucture – which.. really was never designed for this scope of influx..

    what we have learned .. is that in beltway urban areas.. there is far, far more land… available for development than there is existing unused infrastructure so every new development becomes an issue in terms of where the infrastructure will come from and who will pay for it.

    The developers and property rights folks will say that not only can you not build it in advance but that.. in the end.. all taxpayers should pay for it anyhow…

    but if you did that.. property taxes would go up so high that people would start to commute long distances to the outer-suburbs – for cheaper housing and taxes – wouldn’t they?

    so.. while it seems that a good solution for having MORE housing available in the urbanized areas – by adding “granny flats” or whatever one chooses to call them – you’re back to the same basis issues which is where the infrastructure to serve them will come from…

    Just one simple example.. if you build a granny flat.. how do ensure that it will be occupied ONLY by single or empty nester folks?

    How would you keep a two-income family from living there.. especially if there was no room for their two cars.. except on the street?

    .. but I still agree with the concept.. but just pointing out the how and why behind the opposition… to it.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Yes, but as Jim pointed out the number of people per household has declined, which probably means fewer children. So where does the need for more infrastructure come from? Do four people in two houses poop more than four people in one house?

    Fauquier has recently liberalized their rules for auxiliary residences, somewhat. They are still too strict, in my opinion.

    My house in Alexandria once had a detached mother-in-law apartment, but it was de-grandfathered after she died and the house was sold, meaning whatever investment there was in that structure was lost. I subsequently converted it to a garage.

    Unless there is some real safety problem, I think this should be a generally accepted use.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    “The County goes to great lengths to preserve its technical zoning limits of one dwelling unit per 5 acres in this vast area of Fairfax County……

    One advantage of the illegal immigration to America is the disruption of the unjust status quo in zoning. Many of these immigrants have a greater sense of private property rights and housing freedom than our existing government allows.

    Zoning codes that restrict a house to no more than 4 unrelated people don’t mean much when you have just come from a shantytown.

    Kudos to the world’s poor for showing us how selfish our zoning laws and exclusionary suburbs are.”

    Am I the only person who took this as satire???

  7. Original Poster Avatar
    Original Poster

    It was not meant as satire!

    How self absorbed are you?

    Get a grip on global poverty, and help these people earn a better life for their families.

    Or are you a selfish suburbanite who …

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    If one wants to appreciate the potential of Granny Flats – go to the residential areas – around a college or university – usually within walking/biking distance.

    Pay attention to the look/feel of these places.. in particular the numbers of cars parked in front and back yards not in driveways.. etc..

    Once allowed.. they spread very quickly… almost every house that can be retrofitted often is…

    Now imagine this same type of potential in a wider/larger region where cheaper/more affordable housing is already at a premium AND the principle means of commuting is the private auto.. solo at rush hour – not to school – but to work.

    Now imagine NoVa from one end to the other – with Granny Flats allowed.

    When we read articles about Granny Flats in Michigan where manufacturing is declining and the population is aging because the kids are abandoning the childhood homes for jobs in the cities – think of NoVa as one of the places where they go – along with thousands of others to provide necessary services for growing populations. The service folks are down a rung on the economic ladder and affordable housing is a problem for them.

    That’s why we are seeing single family homes turned into de-facto rooming houses – which, in turn, let’s be honest – change the nature of the neighborhood in ways that are not appealing to current residents – who will then leave – and accelerate the trend.

    Would Granny Flats be a net improvement even with the traffic impacts?

    I would support them… if done carefully; I note this:

    “….Also on the [Prince William County] agenda …is a motion to raise proffer rates from $37,719 to $51,113 per single family house.”

    This is going to make housing even less affordable for those in basic service occupations…

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    “It was not meant as satire!

    How self absorbed are you?”

    I’m self INTERESTED enough that if I decide to live in a third-world country, I’ll choose it myself rather than let other people inflict it on me here in the US. I think that makes me main-stream.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I wanted to follow up after I talked to a friend in Fredericksburg who just built a granny flat – for his parents.

    There was one mandatory requirement – the addition had to have a connecting door – and both sides had to be heated.

    Also – only his parents/family can live in it – not renters.
    (not sure how this is enforced).

    I used to live in a granny flat myself… a converted detached garage .. way back when.. zoning laws were… somewhat “lax”. 🙂

Leave a Reply