Multiple Families, One Roof

July 20, 2012

Many suburban communities have long made it difficult, or impossible, for homeowners to convert underused space -- barns, garages and basements -- into rental apartments. But across the United States, homeowners are pressing for changes in zoning laws to allow rentals while home builders report a rise in demand for houses with in-law suites or quarters with separate entry, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • One of five college graduates, ages 25 to 34, is living with his or her parents, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • The number of shared households -- meaning an adult not enrolled in school living with another adult who isn't a spouse -- rose 11.4 percent between 2007 and 2010, from 19.7 million households to 22 million, the Census reported last month.
  • Yet the number of households grew by 1.3 percent during the period.
  • Most of America's detached single-family homes -- 41.9 million, or more than half -- are in the suburbs, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies; cities and rural areas comprise the rest.

Zoning definitions and allowances for such rentals vary by locality. Some towns forbid the construction of kitchens or full bathrooms in areas of a home that could be rented out. Others have allowed multiple units for decades as long as one portion is occupied by a homeowner and there is adequate off-street parking and utility capacity.

Builders of new homes are responding to the new extended American family.

  • Last year, Lennar Corp rolled out a "Next Gen" model, calling it a "home within a home."
  • The houses feature a completely separate unit -- with its own entry, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area -- attached to the main house with a double door similar to adjoining hotel rooms.

But constructing accessory units in existing homes is drawing ire. For example, the planning board in Montgomery County, Maryland, has asked the county council to consider a measure to allow conversions without homeowners going through a public hearing. Still, homeowners worry about strained public utilities, schools and even the availability of parking spaces.  They say illegal conversions have been a problem for some time now.

Source: S. Mitra Kalita, "Mutliple Families, One Roof," Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2012.

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