When I was a freshman in high school many years ago I had a part time job as a draftsman at a local design firm. My boss owned a modest home in a quiet part of town composed mostly of old Victorians. He explained that as a young first time buyer he was able to afford his house because it came with two tiny cottages that generated enough rental income to keep his mortgage low. This income also gave him some financial wiggle room to be able to make periodic improvements and upgrades to all three buildings. At the same time he provided a very affordable place to live for an older woman on a pension and a young newlywed couple – quite literally a granny flat and a honeymoon cottage. The cottages were once wooden platforms that supported ornate Victorian tents. In the late 1800’s city people would camp for the summer and attend religious revival events organized by the nearby Methodist church. Over time the tents were upgraded to little wooden cabins. Porches were attached, kitchens were installed, and eventually bathrooms with proper plumbing were tacked on.
The same kinds of things were done to the main house. The wrap-around porch was insulated and fitted with windows, the third floor attic was opened up with a large dormer and so on. These gradual relatively low cost improvements added tremendous value to the property and contributed to the local economy and community in modest but important ways.
These accessory dwelling units are actually illegal in most locations today. Concerns about home values, health and safety, minimum off street parking ratios, and a million other restrictions make these simple common sense solutions impossible to implement almost everywhere in America today. That’s a shame. The typical “solution” to affordable housing involves huge government subsidies, ugly institutional apartment blocks, and almost always auto-dependent locations far enough away from NIMBYs to avoid political opposition. These self-built garden cottages cost the government nothing. In fact they generate extra property tax revenue for the town. They are dispersed and discrete and avoid the concentration of poverty that always seems to come with large low income projects. Until the rules are changed enterprising home buyers might want to explore the older neighborhoods where these pre-existing arrangements are grandfathered-in. It’s a pretty sweet deal.