**DISCLAIMER: I am writing this post as a private homeowner in Fredericksburg. The post does not purport to reflect the opinions of my employer or my colleagues.**
**NOTE ADDED JUNE 16: Although this post disagrees with the political position being put forward by the SOSFH lawn signs, I fully respect property owners’ rights to engage in political discourse by displaying the signs, just as I have a right to express my disagreement in my blog.**
Like many Fredericksburgers, I’ve noticed the proliferating “save our single-family homes“ (hereafter referred to as SOSFH) yard signs around town.
I’ve gotten lots of questions about the signs, so in response I’ve put together this blog post.
What are the signs about?
Fredericksburg is currently working on an ordinance to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), otherwise known as granny flats. The SOSFH-ers are opposed to the proposal.
What is an ADU?
An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is a secondary housing unit on a single-family residential lot. There are lots of resources to give definitions and examples online. A couple are linked below.
Definition from the American Planning Association: Accessory Dwelling Units
Recent article in The Washington Post: ‘Granny flats’ play surprising role in easing California’s housing woes
Who are the SOSFH coalition?
However, from the signs around town, we can make educated guesses. The signs are in front of large single-family homes. **NOTE: I have edited this post on June 16 2023 to remove estimates of house values and observation of other political signs seen near the SOSFH lawn signs**
Ok, then, who are you to question them?
I’m a longtime homeowner of a single-family home in the Fredericksburg Historic District. I’m also a professor of historic preservation with a doctorate in urban planning. My CV is here. **Please note disclaimer above: the opinions in this post are mine alone and do not purport to reflect those of my employer or colleagues.**
What are the SOSFH Coalition for/against exactly?
At the heart of what the SOSFH Coalition is saying, I believe there are three items.
1- ADUs will make the City Council and developers rich, hence the desire to add them and their unwillingness to be transparent.
2- ADUs will severely damage Fredericksburg by overly burdening City services.
3- ADUs are a ploy to increase density and will destroy “our last remaining large, open spaces for commercial, business and production uses”
That said, I’m the first to admit I had trouble reading their website. It is challenging to navigate and I didn’t find the headings clear. Unlike the SOSFH-ers, I will not make accusations that this is a purposeful obfuscation of goals.
All three of items listed above are predicated on the idea that ADU’s will be built everywhere once they are allowed. The SOSFH website uses this number: “If only half of the existing rental units added an ADU-Apartment, it would result in 3,000 new renters being added to the city.” This is an objectively ridiculous number. Let’s discuss:
- I have no idea where SOSFH got to 6,000 rental units, and anyway that’s irrelevant as owner-occupied homes could also add an ADU. It’s like saying that we have 600 blue cars in Fredericksburg so therefore half of them will require a driveway.
- Instead, let’s look at real numbers. According to WaPo, ADU’s skyrocketed last year in California, to 23,000 permits. I can only find the overall California state housing numbers for 2021 (here), but let’s assume they haven’t changed much. We still end up with around 20% of new housing units, and again that’s in a state with very high housing pressures. So in other words, 20% would be the pie-in-the-sky number, not “half of existing rental units”. According to the Census, there were 183 building permits in Fredericksburg in 2022. So, again, the science-fiction high number we would end up with is 40 units. Not 3000.
- But realistically, how many units would we really get? We aren’t California. I think 10 ADUs per year (or 1/4 of the stratospheric number) is very optimistic. The SOSFH people say that would mean at least two people and two cars per unit. But ADUs are limited to 400 square feet. That square footage is tight for a single person, let alone “a family with middle schoolers”. So yeah, what we are talking about here is about 10 extra people and cars per year if the ADU ordinance is passed.
- The SOSFH think that everyone would add an ADU because according to them it would cost $10K for a “kitchenette and bathroom”. I have to wonder if these people know the cost of a banana.
Let’s go back to the three points on which the SOSFH website is focused.
1 – Would ADUs make City Council and developers rich?
I mean, hopefully having an ADU ordinance will be economically viable. But even if it is, this is not going to mean “$18,000” profit after the first year. Again, the SOSFHers say an ADU will cost $10k to build, which is patently ridiculous. They think people will spend $1500 a month for a 400sq foot space. A quick Zillow search shows rentals with 50% more square footage for $1300 a month. And that’s before considering maintenance costs, etc.
In the long term, homeowners should be able to get a return on investment, but it would take a decade or more, and even then it won’t be retire-in-the-Bahamas money. That doesn’t stop the SOSFHers to accuse the Council members of being “Fat Cats”. Look at where those SOSFH signs are, though. Most of those houses are worth $1M+. I think there’s a proverb somewhere about people in glass houses…
2 – ADUs will severely damage Fredericksburg by overly burdening City services.
Again, the rough math done above shows that a high-but-realistic number would be 10 people and 10 cars a year added because of ADUs. How will Fredericksburg ever survive? How could we possibly deal with such an influx? *LE GASP*
3 – ADUs are a ploy to increase density.
Well that would be great, but ADUs are not a panacea. We have a housing crisis in Fredericksburg and it’s nothing new. SOSFH-ers seem to think the “missing middle” is a myth but I encourage them (and you!) to do research about it. Simply put: we need more housing, especially housing that isn’t for the very rich. Nurses need a place to live. Teachers need a place to live. Baristas need a place to live. The elderly need a place to live.
ADUs will hopefully be a little help in increasing housing options in the ‘burg. But even if they succeed beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, they will remain a drop in the bucket. So I’m not sure how it’s a ploy so much as one tool among hopefully many others.
The SOSFH-ers really want everyone to think that any homeowner should be against ADUs, that someone out there is twirling their evil mustache, that this is a corrupt left-wing cabal. Please look at the evidence and make up your own mind.
My personal opinion, as a homeowner in the City, and after carefully looking at the SOSFH materials: they definitely don’t speak for me. I won’t be building an ADU on my property, but if ADUs help others live in the City, so much the better.
As far as I can tell, SOSFH-ers are rich homeowners who don’t want non-rich people to live next to them. In other words, they are the textbook definition of NIMBYs. Which, hooray for them, I guess?