Gabrielle Lord, Contributing Photographer

When New Haven allowed the building of accessory dwelling units in 2021, it failed to contribute any additional housing units to the city. Now the city is trying again.

The City Plan Commission made a favorable recommendation to the New Haven Board of Alders to amend the zoning ordinance for accessory dwelling units — units within homes that owners can turn into rental units — at a special meeting on Wednesday night. This is the most recent move in a longstanding debate over whether or not to amend the accessory dwelling units zoning ordinance code in order to make it more useful to residents. 

All successful ADU construction since 2021 has required additional relief funding. In the amended ordinance, the City Plan Commission aims to tweak all restrictive aspects of the prior ordinance, allowing the ADUs to serve their intended purpose.

“There were some barriers that were included in the original ordinance, predominantly the owner occupancy requirements, that made it more challenging for people to even consider ADUs,” Laura Brown, executive director of city planning, said. “We simply don’t know how many people thought about it, but decided not to move forward with many of these.”

ADU expansions are aimed at increasing housing supply in more densely populated areas of the city. As stated in the zoning ordinance, owners of single, double or triple-family homes can construct ADUs within their properties without having to seek approval from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, as long as their property has a minimum of 4,000 square feet. 

The original ordinance, known as the Phase One ADU ordinance, required those creating ADUs to be residing in the home where the construction would take place. ADUs could be no smaller than 400 square feet, and no larger than either the square footage of the existing property — 1,200 square feet. Phase One also required ADUs to be within the already-standing property, and to have designated parking.

Amending the Phase One ordinance, the Phase Two ordinance proposed at Wednesday’s meeting suggested removing the requirement for owners to live in the house with the ADU, citing it as a “significant barrier to ADU creation.”

The proposed amendment allows the construction of non-attached units — like free-standing garages — to be turned into ADUs as well. With the amendment, the minimum square footage requirement for properties with ADUs would be removed, as long as the ADU itself is bigger than 400 square feet, as would the parking requirement for ADUs. ADUs still cannot be subdivided into different units and must comply with state building codes on accessibility. The amendment was proposed and presented by Brown and Nate Hougrand, the city’s deputy director of zoning.

“We can’t really be moving fast enough to meet housing demand,” Brown said. “This type of legislation is one really interesting tool that we have in the toolbox that allows density increase within neighborhoods without a really substantial change. It starts to build density in ways that are more consistent with the neighborhood character.” 

Various commissioners, as well as testifying attendees, posed questions and concerns about the amended ordinance, though most were generally in favor of the amendments. 

Alternate Commissioner Carl Goldfield spoke against the ordinance, expressing concerns about removing the requirement for the owner to occupy the residence with the ADU, citing examples of irresponsible landlords around the city. 

“I think that this would be opening things up in a way that will be counterproductive, and we may end up with a lot of unintended consequences,” Goldfield said. “These units will be built not by the people we’re hoping will build them, but it will just be a free-for-all for landlords who are already renting to build additional units and try to make more money out of their properties.”

Alder and Commissioner Adam Marchand, despite being pro-amendment, echoed Goldfield’s concern, saying he would need the amendment to continue to require owner occupancy on the property if it is to be presented to the Board of Alders, which is the next step for the ordinance.

After about an hour of presenting the amendments and questions from commissioners, one member of the testifying public, Gretchen Knauff, director of New Haven’s Disability Services, spoke in favor of the amendment. Knauff thanked Brown and Hougrand for keeping ADU accessibility in mind during their amendment, particularly with ground-level units. These concerns had been mentioned in Brown and Hougrand’s presentation, but not elaborated on.

“Only 5 percent of housing is affordable accessible housing,” Knauff said. “During my career doing disability work, the highest number of overall questions revolved around finding affordable accessible housing … It is a very in-depth need for the disability population.”

Marchand thanked Knauff for testifying and recommended that the concerns be put in writing so that they are considered with the amendment before the Board of Alders.

Another member of the testifying public, Sondi Jackson, asked the commissioners whether adding more housing units would contribute to the amount of taxable housing in the city, therefore raising homeowner taxes.

To this, Brown was not able to give a clear answer, saying there is no clear evidence for how the ADUs will affect surrounding property taxes. Jackson’s question struck doubts in the mind of Leslie Radcliffe, chair of the commission, leaving her wondering out loud if the new units would alter the tax assessment of the properties.

In the end, all of these concerns factored into the commission’s final decision on the amendment, leading them to put in a favorable recommendation for it to the Board of Alders. With their recommendation, they urged the alders to keep the owner-occupancy requirement, to prioritize ADU accessibility and to consider the impacts of ADUs on affordability and taxing. 

The Phase Two amendment, as tweaked and recommended by the commission, will come before the Board of Alders Legislative Committee before being read to the full Board of Alders.

Mia Cortés Castro covers City Hall and State Politics, and previously covered Cops and Courts. Originally from Dorado, Puerto Rico, she is a sophomore in Branford College studying English.