Op-Ed: Another Virginia city flops on granny flats



Policymakers love to talk about affordable housing solutions.

Officials have been doing it for years in Richmond, Virginia, and surrounding communities. But one Northern Virginia city decided to take action in 2023.

Or so residents thought.

The City Council in Fredericksburg, Virginia, voted July 12 on an ordinance that would have permitted property owners to have accessory dwelling units or “ADUs” on their lots. Commonly known as granny flats, these small-scale interventions can chip away at large-scale housing problems.

Residents with freedom to innovate can create private solutions to a public challenge without using taxpayer dollars. Yet instead of passing meaningful reform, Fredericksburg advanced a neutered version of the ordinance for a second reading on Aug. 8.

Normally, ADUs can be any unit on a single-family lot with separate sleeping, cooking and bathroom facilities. Variations include basement apartments, garage conversions and backyard cottages. All of these options were up for debate in Fredericksburg. But the City Council removed detached units like backyard cottages from consideration. If the revised ordinance receives final approval, zoning laws would expand only for ADUs that are inside the home.

This would be a missed opportunity. The beauty of ADUs is the flexibility they give to homeowners to address diverse needs, and backyard cottages often factor into the equation.

Families can use backyard cottages, for example, to house adult children while still providing them with a degree of autonomy. Backyard cottages also work well for homeowners to care for elderly parents, which is why the AARP endorses them. Homeowners can also use backyard cottages for rental income, while still maintaining privacy for themselves.

The revised ordinance would leave many families behind, putting Fredericksburg on a long list of Virginia municipalities that prefer half-measures and talk over action.

“Nearly all communities have ongoing conversations regarding ADUs among policymakers,” a 2021 George Mason University study finds.

Meanwhile, a Virginia House panel killed a statewide ADU bill in February. Yet not all policymakers are so timid. Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville and other Virginia cities have allowed backyard cottages for years with no ill effects. My neighbors on both sides have backyard cottages in Alexandria, and I have not suffered.

Despite the potential for good, a small coalition of residents is pushing back against ADUs in Fredericksburg, which has made the City Council skittish. The reason for the opposition? As coalition members have testified, they don’t want more renters and “low-income” people in their city.

This opposition is not only elitist, but clueless. With historically high housing prices and rising interest rates, many families are struggling to buy homes. People stuck on the outside of the real estate market include teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers and other essential workers – not to mention recent college graduates and young parents.

All of these people need safe, affordable places to live. And ADUs could provide that. Yet the coalition and now, apparently, the City Council prefer to continue a pattern of discrimination against renters that started in Fredericksburg with restrictive zoning laws in 1984. My public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, sees this type of bias nationwide.

Regulators in Winona, Minnesota, imposed rental quotas that allowed only 30 percent of homeowners in any given neighborhood to receive rental licenses. Zoning officials in Meridian, Idaho, forced a property owner to evict a tenant living in a tiny unit behind a fence in his side yard. Other cities allow inspectors to enter rental properties without probable cause and poke around in people’s private dwelling spaces. This has occurred in Pottstown, Pennsylvania; Yuma, Arizona; Zion, Illinois; and Seattle.

Policymakers talk about affordable housing. They express empathy, criticize greedy landlords, and call for reforms. Then they turn around and push exclusionary zoning laws and regressive regulations that treat renters like second-class citizens.

Something similar is happening in Fredericksburg. Except the city is not just hurting renters, but everyone who could benefit from backyard cottages. It’s not too late to reverse course. Rather than approving the gutted ordinance that cleared its first read, the City Council should rethink its course and pass a more comprehensive ADU ordinance.

Richmond and other Virginia cities could benefit from similar reforms. Instead of showing bias against renters, policymakers should show bias toward action.

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