Asaf Hanuka

Real Estate

Everything You Wanted to Know About Granny Flats But Were Afraid to Ask

The law in Dallas has changed. But be careful before you start building.

OK, I’ll bite. What’s a granny flat?
Granny flats are really just backhouses, rentable apartments detached from the rest of the house. You’ve probably heard them referred to as in-law suites, garage apartments, backyard cottages, or the city speak—accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The main idea here is that they’re stand-alone units with their own kitchens and baths.

And these are new to Dallas?
Dallasites were allowed to have the units if they obtained a special exception from the Board of Adjustment, but officially they’ve never been able to rent them out. Unofficially, in Dallas, as in other parts of the country, homeowners have been—illegally, technically—earning extra cash by putting people up in their detached units for years. It’s not easy to police. But the Dallas City Council followed other cities last summer in formalizing an ADU law, pitching the move as a way to bring affordable housing to areas of opportunity. So now you can make a rented unit legit in the eyes of the city.

Have people done that?
Not a damn soul. The city allows for individual applicants or for neighborhoods to apply for bulk approval, but nobody has pursued either. (We can thank city-imposed red tape for that.) The closest thing: led by Councilman Philip Kingston, a neighborhood near Lower Greenville altered its conservation district code to allow rentable granny flats. Kingston and his partner, Melissa Kingston, subsequently started building one above their detached garage.

Right, Kingston! Didn’t he get in trouble for that?
As it turned out, no. Someone anonymously filed an ethics complaint alleging that he’d pushed for the change in his conservation district for his own financial gain. Kingston, locked in a tight race to regain his Council seat (which will be decided by the time you read this), called that allegation part of “silly season.” In late May, the city’s Ethics Advisory Commission sided with Kingston’s lawyer’s argument that the councilman’s economic opportunity was no greater than anyone else’s in his neighborhood, and he was cleared.

You snuck something about red tape into parentheses up there. What’s that about?
Good catch. Yes, the red tape. There’s this guy in Portland, Oregon, Kol Peterson, who has become something of an authority on granny flats. Insofar as there has been a movement, he’s at least a—maybe the—leader. He wrote a book on the matter. And he says there are four cities that have gotten their codes right—Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, and Vancouver. Everywhere else has killed ADUs with bad regulations, namely by doing any of three things: they require off-street parking, they require the property owner to live on-site, or they require neighbor consent. Dallas does the first two—although you can work around the parking requirement if you’re close to a DART stop or get your neighbors to sign off—leading Kol to slap our city with an F. “The ADU movement will never take off there with those regulations,” he says. “It needs to be an A.”

How about the burbs?
Places like Plano, Frisco, and Denton have versions of these laws in place or are working on them. Plano passed something in February, and it has generated some mild interest since.

You know, the cities you mentioned that are doing this right, they’ve got some stuff in common. They’re progressive, and they’re short on affordable housing.
Extremely smart observation! This stuff gets political in a hurry, and Kol says he’s seen NIMBY types who’ve come out of the woodwork in every city, so passing progressive regulations takes a lot of persistent people who really want it. Dallas has a fairly sizable affordable housing issue here, as w—

Allow me to stop you right there. Because I’m a regular reader of D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog, I’m well aware of the city’s shortage. Can granny flats help?
Now you’re just showing off. It can, but it’s hardly a magic wand, because granny flats can be surprisingly expensive to build and still fetch sizable rents. In truth, they’re most beneficial for the people who own and rent them out, either yearly or on a short-term basis through Airbnb or other sites.

What’s the bottom line?
It’d be hard to discourage someone who’s educated herself on the topic and decided she can make it work, but you should know that it’ll be a tough road ahead if you pursue an ADU. Kol would not recommend it in Dallas under the current ordinance. Long story short, as exciting as granny flats sound for homeowners who’d like to make some extra money, the regulations are onerous enough that you might be better off waiting out—or even pushing for—some changes to city code that make the process smoother. Kingston says that could happen this year, with a newly elected City Council.

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