Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs as they’re commonly known, have exploded in popularity since state and local governments are making them easier to build.
The self-contained housing units, with their own living and sleeping space and a kitchen and bathroom, are zoned to be built on property adjacent to single-family dwellings, in backyards, next to free-standing outbuildings like garages, or replacing them altogether.
Their recent surge in popularity results from a severe affordable housing shortage across the U.S., particularly in densely populated urban areas, where high rents are forcing young, old, and low-income residents farther and farther away from city centers.
That was the case for Betty Szuda and Maggie Roth’s newly married son and wife in 2017. Ben is a preschool teacher, and his wife works in social media, “so they’re not rolling in the dough,” Betty tells LGBTQ Nation.
Ben was raised in the couple’s 1911 Craftsman-style house in the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland, which Betty bought in the mid-1970s.
“It was an old working-class Italian neighborhood,” says Betty, 70, “and now it’s a very desirable neighborhood. It’s near BART,” the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, “and it’s just become much more expensive, to be honest, to buy here.”
“It’s really changed dramatically in the time that we’ve been here,” says Maggie, 70. Their neighbors “just keep remodeling and adding a floor or whatever, but there’s no place really to expand and it’s limited in terms of places to build housing.”
Betty and Maggie met in 1981 at a labor rally in San Francisco headlined by Walter Mondale.
“We were 30 when we met,” explains Betty. “We’ve been together 41 years.”
How long did it take Maggie to move in?
They both laugh.
“Probably about, I don’t know, three or four years?” Maggie confirms with Betty.
The couple is both retired now. Betty was a workforce development counselor for underserved workers, and Maggie organized events for technology companies.
After Ben went away to school and spent time teaching in China, he moved back in with his parents and met his wife, who joined the family in their two-story, three-bedroom house in 2017.
“They were living with us at that time, and they were looking for a place,” Betty remembers, but they just couldn’t break into the housing market. “It just started to feel hopeless. So we thought, well, that’s an old garage, kind of in not-the-greatest-shape, so why don’t we just tear it down and see if we can do an ADU and maybe they want to live there.”
Maggie adds, “This was when Oakland had just opened up the ability to do ADUs. For a while they were, like, you have to have two parking spaces next to each other side by side, which is just not possible in an urban area. So we decided to do it because they changed the policy so that you just needed to be within half a mile of public transportation.”
With an architect, the family designed a 400-sqft building to replace their dilapidated garage, which they call the Cottage. The Craftsman-style structure was built with a kitchen and bath in an open floor plan, a laundry set-up, and a storage loft.
Nine months later, they had a finished ADU.
Yeah,” Betty says, laughing, “they told us six months.”
The project set them back, “about $150,000,” she adds, “pretty much on par for what the average is for doing that around here.”
They couldn’t be happier with the result.
“It’s quite lovely if I do say so myself,” says Betty proudly.
“There’s a lot of advantages,” says Maggie. “It’s very shared, you know? ‘Hey, can we borrow your car?’ ‘Can we borrow this car this day?’ You know, enjoy the backyard together because it’s a nice garden. And it’s nice to be able to just know each other’s there and be able to share family meals and just catch up.”
Betty chimes in. “My parents died when I was young. And so for me, it’s important to have that kind of connection. Because we know a fair amount of people whose kids are not necessarily close to them, so for us, it’s really a gift.”
Asked what the greatest difference was between their kids living in the house and living in the Cottage, they both laughed and agreed: “Separate kitchen and laundry.”
Says Maggie: “It’s just nice for them to have their own space. And I’d say the same for us. Now we’re home more because we’re retired. And we keep wanting them to come over, like, ‘Hey, if you guys just want to hang out.’ Occasionally they do take advantage of it. But I think they just like their little nest.”
Are the kids taking on responsibilities around the property once reserved for the parents?
“Oh, I’d say we’re getting there. They’re so used to having us do it, you know, just take care of stuff,” Maggie says to laughter. “Exactly. So I’m just sharing, ‘Hey, we just had to have a sump pump installed and like, you know much that was you?’ So, just sharing, like some of the maintenance that has to go on when you have any house, but especially an older house. But we’re trying to bring them more into that conversation.”
“Yeah, especially because, you know, the house will become theirs,” adds Betty. “And the responsibility will become theirs.”
“I think we’re doing a little dance right now,” Maggie adds. “You know, waiting for them to step up more, and I’m happy to relinquish more. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Of course, the calculus could change anytime, on either side of the garden, with Betty and Maggie getting older and their kids possibly parents themselves in the future.
“As we’ve been told,” says Maggie, broaching what sounds like a taboo topic, “when there’s something to report, they’ll let us know.”
In the meantime, the two moms are enjoying their status quo.
“Maggie’s very recently retired,” says Betty, “and I’ve been retired for a few years and now we see ourselves as traveling for longer times than we were able to before. I think our health, right now — both of us — is relatively good. And that makes a huge difference. So, really, I think we’d stay in the Big House, as I call it, for the next five or ten years.”
“But, who knows?” Maggie slips in.