Lost amid a host of headline-grabbing current events recently is that rarest of political unicorns: a proposal supported by Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and the left-leaning Assembly alike — one that could help make Anchorage’s stubbornly high one-bedroom rent more affordable and spare residents longer commutes. You may not have heard of it, but the discussion over accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, could save you a bundle, whether you’re a renter or a homeowner.
What’s an accessory dwelling unit?
The “ADU” nomenclature is just another way to refer to something that many of us grew up calling a “mother-in-law apartment” — a small, self-contained building sharing a lot with a larger home. ADUs are intended to provide separate living space for a renter or, as the older term jokingly references, a guest or family member best kept at a bit of a remove.
Originally, ADUs were often used as a means of taking care of elderly relations who needed a little looking after but still cherish some independence. Some are still used that way, but the ADU idea has been championed in recent years by urban-renewal proponents as a way to expand housing availability without requiring new land. Importantly, because ADUs are smaller than full houses, they can be a more affordable option, both for the homeowners who construct them and the renters who occupy them after construction.
How can ADUs help Anchorage’s housing situation?
Housing is tight in the Anchorage Bowl, especially for affordable rental units. A nationwide rent study found that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Anchorage jumped 25% in the past year alone — the 11th highest jump of any metropolitan area in the U.S. That’s not news to those who have been looking to buy or rent in Anchorage during the past few years — those looking for affordable options have been forced to look farther afield, sometimes as far as the Mat-Su. That’s a bad trend for the municipality, and it’s good that our elected representatives are looking for solutions.
Mayor Dave Bronson has put forward a plan that would make new ADU construction tax free for the first 10 years, and the Assembly has been supportive in concept. Assembly members are working with the administration to tweak the plan in order to tie incentives more closely to the desired result — expanding housing availability, not just building additions. That’s smart; it’s worth taking a month or two on the front end to avoid unintentional loopholes and giveaways in the property tax code.
Is this a silver bullet?
It would be nice if ADUs could solve all or even most of Anchorage’s housing-availability issues, but realistically, they’re just one piece of a housing plan made up of many different facets, such as the new mini-houses near the Park Strip. But if even a few dozen Anchorage homeowners per year are able to build ADUs and rent them out, that means affordable rent and living closer to work for a few dozen residents. That means a few dozen cars off the Glenn Highway at rush hour. That means a few dozen more residential construction jobs for private contractors each summer. It all adds up.
Mayor Bronson and the Assembly are right to provide incentives for the creation of more ADUs, and they’re also right to make sure they tailor their plan to help ensure those incentives go toward expanding local housing stock, not just increasing property values for existing residents. Executed well, this can be a win for Anchorage. We need as many of those — big or small — as we can get.