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Mayor, City Council members want to permit more backyard cottages and 'granny flats'

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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and City Council members are proposing to make it easier for the owners of single-family homes to create accessory dwelling units on their properties.

Seeking to create more housing options, Mayor Satya Rhodes Conway and three City Council members are proposing to make it easier to build backyard cottages or “granny flats” on properties with owner-occupied, single-family homes.

The proposal, to be introduced to the council Tuesday, would make so-called accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, a permitted use rather than conditional use, meaning owners could forgo an often lengthy approval process with an unpredictable outcome that has likely dampened interest in creating such housing in Madison.

The proposal, co-sponsored by Alds. Patrick Heck, Tag Evers and Grant Foster, is one of several initiatives included in the mayor’s Housing Forward agenda that aims to increase both the amount of housing being built in Madison and the diversity of housing types.

“Madison is growing rapidly, and our population growth has long outpaced our housing growth,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. We need to use all the tools in our toolbox if we want Madison to remain affordable and accessible for everybody. ADUs and backyard cottages are one way we can add housing and housing choice to our city.”

Accessory dwelling units are also a way to increase housing density in neighborhoods without large development projects, said Evers, 13th District.

“Madison has a lot of neighborhoods that are largely comprised of single-family homes,” he said. “These neighborhoods are often inaccessible to many people in our community. ADUs by their very nature tend to be more affordable and therefore are a great way to open a neighborhood to new residents.”

The proposal also increases the maximum size of such units from 700 to 900 square feet, sets a maximum of two bedrooms and makes other changes to simplify the rules.

The principal dwelling or the accessory dwelling unit must be owner occupied, but a temporary absence of up to six months is allowed. No more than one accessory dwelling could be located on a property.

“Making it easier for city residents to construct ADUs on their property not only supports our citywide goal of increasing the availability of housing, but is also of great benefit to single-family property owners themselves,” said Foster, 15th District. “The additional housing unit can help accommodate extended family living arrangements by providing a home for an aging parent or an adult child and in other cases, the additional rental income can help someone pay their bills and continue to stay in the neighborhood.”

The housing type was first allowed in Madison as a conditional use in 2013, city Planning Division director Heather Stouder said. Since then, only about 20 to 25 have been approved and about a dozen have been completed, she said.

“Hiring an architect to develop a site plan for a permit is a big investment for the average homeowner if they have no certainty about whether the permit will be approved,” said Heck, 2nd District, who sits on the Plan Commission. “I think the proposed changes will make ADUs a more attractive option for many homeowners while still limiting impacts on neighbors.”

The proposed changes should make the process more predictable, but other zoning requirements will still apply, the sponsors said.

The proposal will be reviewed by the Plan Commission on Nov. 22 with a final decision by the council expected on Dec. 7.

Madison’s housing market has seen tremendous growth powered by two engines: a high quality of life and a strong job market that have combined to attract thousands of new residents every year, the mayor’s Housing Forward plan says. If growth continues at the current pace, there could be 70,000 new residents and 40,000 new households in Madison by 2040, it says.

The plan promotes increased housing choice, creating low-cost housing throughout the city, combating displacement and segregation, ensuring seniors and others can stay in their homes, and working to end homelessness.


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