Some property owners are expressing concern about accessory dwelling units — small buildings on single housing property — while Champaign city officials move towards approving them.
The housing units have been promoted as a possible step towards more affordable housing and a way for family members to comfortably live together, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are secondary residential units on a one lot. They can either be an internal ADU, which exists in an existing home, an attached ADU, which would be attached to an existing home or a detached ADU, which would be a secondary home detached from an existing house.
The idea for ADUs came up in 2019 when the Champaign City Council adopted the goal of incremental development, said Rob Kowalski, assistant director of the Planning and Development department for the City of Champaign. He said ADUs are a big component of incremental development.
“Incremental development is a popular growing trend within communities who are looking to allow small, incremental changes in neighborhoods to add housing and business in a way that doesn’t upset the original fabric of those neighborhoods,” Kowalski said in an email.
To gauge Champaign’s interest in ADUs, City Planning sent out a survey in mid-August with questions about ADUs and what they might look like in Champaign. Kowalski said that about 65% to 70% of 1,513 participants seemed to indicate interest and support for ADUs.
Mike Reed, Clark Park resident of 40 years who took the survey, said he thought some of the questions were worded in a way that made disagreeing with the idea of ADUs difficult, such as affordable housing solutions and alternative living spaces for the elderly community.
“Those things are great, and I support that,” Reed said. “The question is, how do you keep that from turning into duplex zoning? Overturning single family zoning is a big deal, and this’ll do away with single family zoning because you can build another dwelling unit on any property if you don’t have any restrictions.”
Kowalski said that ADUs can help diversify neighborhoods both racially and economically, as well as create options that solve affordable housing issues. According to Kowalski, diversity has decreased in several cities across the country due to increased housing costs.
“The goal of accessory dwelling units is to introduce and allow smaller and more affordable housing types within neighborhoods that provides property owners a lot of flexibility,” Kowalski said.
Along with affordable housing, Kowalski said ADUs can offer an alternative to expensive nursing homes or assisted living facilities for the elderly population by allowing them to live with loved ones on their property.
“There’s even high demand for college graduates to be able to live at home again, but not necessarily in the basement type of ‘at home,’” Kowalski said. “So, they provide a lot of flexibility for multi-generational housing within a family as well as affordable housing options.”
Residents worry about unregulated neighborhood transformation
Reed said that he understands that the city council is moving towards incremental development with ADUs, but said he thinks the term incremental development is a “sleight of hand.”
“What you do is you say, ‘Well, we’re not going to allow more than five units per year, or three,’” Reed said. “’We know this isn’t right, but you guys will be gone by the time it gets to a level that’s not bearable or that has changed the neighborhood so much it’s a different kind of neighborhood.’”
Mike McMillen, a Clark Park resident, said that ADUs would allow a house to gain more square footage than is normally allowed for houses in the Clark Park neighborhood, whose lots aren’t very large to begin with.
“The properties get more and more cramped, which, you know, the city is looking for greater density, they want more taxes, I’m pretty sure,” McMillen said. “Basically, that’s the end of single-family properties because you can build another habitable space on your property.”
He said allowing a developer to produce two living units on the same property would change the character of Clark Park and would cause the natural greenery of the neighborhood to go away.
“It would be just basically a sea of construction, a sea of built space, houses everywhere,” McMillen said. “I don’t want to see it happen in my neighborhood.”
McMillen referenced California and other states that have already allowed single-family lots to be split into two lots, allowing two dwelling units to be built on each lot.
“That’s my fear is we’d be heading that same sort of thing without some real control,” McMillen said. “I hope the city considers the real controls that would be necessary.”
Though the survey did ask participants if they think ADUs should have certain restrictions, Reed said that Champaign doesn’t have a great history of creating or enforcing restrictions. He specifically references the lack of restrictions for Airbnb vacation rentals and other short term rental homes in Champaign.
“That’s sort of out of the realm of possibility unless the council has the stomach to step forward and say, ‘Yeah, we need to do that,’” Reed said.
He said that a few restrictions he’d like to see on ADUs include picking areas that are already adjacent to commercial, industrial, two family and multi-family areas or requiring ADUs to be owner occupied, which he specified should be for the majority of the year, not a few months at a time.
“They just need to have some serious restrictions that respect the history of zoning law and respect the residents who live in neighborhoods where they didn’t want to live next to other uses – commercial, industrial, duplex and multifamily,” Reed said.
On Tuesday, November 23, the City of Champaign City Council held a study session where Kowalski and Gabby Harpel, a research intern in the planning and development department, went over the survey results, proposed next steps and answered questions from city council members.
Champaign residents also shared comments on ADUs. Those in favor of them praised them as an affordable housing option, a way to support mental health and a step towards economic growth and incremental development.
McMillen also spoke at the session and urged planning and development to consider the involvement of developers in ADUs.
“If there are rules, people are going to try and push them and screw them around to their advantage,” McMillen said at the study session.
Another Champaign resident, Mary Schultz, said that she thinks ADUs sound great in theory but that she’s concerned about the impact of ADUs on neighbors and about the decrease of green space that they could cause. Schultz also said that she is not in favor of the city council’s goal of incremental development.
“I just don’t think we need to make money off everything,” she said. “Can’t our single-family homes be sacred and a cherished place where it’s not a profit, motive where it’s just where we get to escape? I just thought that the intent was never that we make money off of our homes.”