By next month, Pittsburgh may know whether renovating basements and building backyard “granny flats” could cut into the city’s affordable housing shortage.
And Brian Gaudio — plus other potential occupant-landlords like him — might get a hint as to whether a proverbial grandparent, in-law or tenant will be allowed to move in downstairs.
Gaudio’s home in Garfield doubles as an office for Module, the design-build housing company he heads. A couple of desks on the ground floor sit in a combined kitchen-living room with a hallway leading to a bed and bath. The space is ready to be rented as an accessory dwelling unit [ADU] the moment it’s legal.
“I think a city that has ADUs legal 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 sit within a primary residence like Gaudio’s or in a detached building on a property. They’ve emerged in cities such as Boston and Chicago to help provide low-cost rentals, but have really gained a foothold on the west coast.
In Los Angeles, one in every 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 city Councilwoman Deb Gross and passed last month, the Department of City Planning and the Department of Permits, Licensing and Inspections must report on present-day ADUs, plus potential incentives and regulatory changes that might make them prevalent once again.
The report is due to council by Nov. 23, though Gross told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that might be ambitious for the busy Planning Department.
“We’re trying to just be methodical and take one step at a time and get this set of shared facts in front of everybody so they can learn and see if this works for Pittsburgh,” Gross told PublicSource.
A strong regional demand has yet to be seen. Dormont remains hopeful that ADUs could help douse soaring home prices, but the borough hasn’t received a permit request since updating its zoning code to allow them in June 2021.
Evidence from other cities shows challenges not only in encouraging ADU uptake, but ensuring that benefits don’t concentrate among affluent households that can bear the costs of construction.
Advocates recognize a range of pitfalls with these units, but anticipate net benefits with carefully crafted legislation.
Chris Rosselot, policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, said working professionals on budgets, homeowners looking to supplement their mortgages and family members on fixed incomes all stand to benefit.
“Looking at an increase in ADUs would definitely help solve the affordable housing crisis that we’re in, but it’s not the only answer,” Rosselot said.
A return to form
Accessory dwelling units aren’t unheard of in Pittsburgh.
Online real estate marketplace Zillow lists several Pittsburgh properties built before the first citywide zoning ordinance in 1923 as having “in-law suites,” one of many colloquial terms for ADUs.
Homes that share a lot with another property but face away from the main residential street are common in parts of the city. A vast majority of these “alley houses” were built before the advent of modern zoning, according to Gross, and they make up a substantial portion of the housing stock in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville.
“Fast forward 100 years and I also have residents in Morningside and Highland Park who have tried to [build an alley house] and had to jump all these hoops and go through all this red tape,” Gross said.
There’s nothing illegal about the concept of separate dwellings on the same lot, but property owners in single-unit zones can’t rent out their renovated garages or basements under current ordinances.
A change in zoning laws could be a full-circle moment for Pittsburgh and reinstate “the density of what our neighborhoods once were,” said Andrew Dash, deputy director of city planning.
Struggles in Garfield
For all the measured optimism in government and advocacy groups, a recent pilot effort in the city warns of obstacles to widespread ADU adoption.
Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation [BGC] and the City Planning Commission partnered to craft a two-year zoning overlay permitting new ADUs, beginning in September 2018.
The terms of the expired program hint at what a permanent, more expansive piece of legislation could look like. It required units to be under 800 square feet, limited to two stories and owned by an occupant of the primary residence. The city also waived onsite parking requirements and put a 30-day minimum on ADU leases.
BGC Executive Director Rick Swartz viewed the program as a tool for increasing density in the neighborhood’s single-family zone and making homeownership “a more affordable proposition” for lower-middle income residents.
In the end, the pilot produced just two permits and no construction, though the permits remain valid.
Extra units did not materialize, in part due to fears of property reassessments, Swartz said, but also because of untimely overlap with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Construction costs have plagued ADU efforts in other cities. With few, if any grants available in Pittsburgh for this kind of development, lower-income homeowners might balk at borrowing funds to finance ADU construction, according to Swartz.
Swartz added that some residents, believing the pilot would drive market-rate development, expressed opposition at city council hearings on the legislation.
“I think everything has to be cast in such a way that the average Pittsburgher can understand what’s the intent of what we’re trying to do here,” Swartz said.
“If the city can take another run at it, [BGC] would certainly jump on board.”
No Airbnbs, please
The Garfield legislation had little impact, but did set some precedents that advocates find important for future legislation.
Demi Kolke, a senior program manager for Neighborhood Allies, said owner-occupancy requirements could prevent large developers or absentee landlords from entering the market for ADUs.
“By having an ADU on your property, you’re going to be there, you’re going to be present,” said Kolke. “It could really be a game changer.”
Wary of short-term rentals such as Airbnbs, Rosselot praised the 30-day minimum tenancy 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 financing from groups like Bridgeway Capital and the Urban Redevelopment Authority could help lower-income neighborhoods get in on the action. And design templates could make the zoning review process more predictable while limiting pre-development costs.
“If we’re serious about affordable housing in Pittsburgh,” said Gaudio, “which we as a city say we are serious, then we have to look at how can you add density to single-family zoning.”
Jack Troy is a PublicSource editorial intern and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jacktroywrites.
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