All those cute little backyard bungalow pictures that keep popping up in home magazines effuse an air of simplicity and ease.
The process of installing one typically does not.
Things can get rather complicated when it comes to accessory dwelling units — a catch-all term for options like apartments above garages or tiny homes plopped beside pools.
“ADUs get a lot of attention,” said Douglas Smith, Lancaster’s chief planner, speaking at a City Council meeting last month. “But they may not be the silver bullet that some people think that they are.”
City of Lancaster officials — in their ongoing push to create more affordable housing — in 2019 changed some dimension requirements hoping that would make it easier for property owners to do things like convert a garage into a residence. But the changes haven’t inspired many conversions, Smith told council, adding that hurdles remain, including utilities and safe access along common alleys.
The wording that went with 2019 changes mentioned multi-family units but didn’t specifically name single-family as an acceptable use. That was an oversight because many of the structures that drove the change in dimension requirements couldn’t support more than one family, Smith told council last month. Council corrected that Tuesday by amending the zoning ordinance.
“So if there’s a row of carriage houses along the back of your property, those could be converted to a single-family home,” Smith said.
While city officials can shift dimension requirements, they have has less flexibility when it comes to building codes, Chris Delfs, the city’s director of community planning and economic development, told council. Finances are also an issue.
“Here in Lancaster city, you maybe have not seen as many developments of ADUs because of the cost to do so,” Delfs said.
“The permission is there. But the funding may not be there for a particular property owner,” he added. “It does beg the question that, with some creative thinking or funding in that direction, then maybe that would prime the pump for additional ADUs.”
Nationally, the ADU landscape is “incredibly lumpy,” says David Morley, research manager at the Chicago-based American Planning Association.
“There are a few states and a few metropolitan areas where lots and lots of ADUs get built and many more across the country where virtually none get built,” he says.
Regulations can make ADUs impossible or impractical in some places, Morley says. He too says finances can be an even bigger barrier. Estimates for adding an ADU typically range from $50,000 to $150,000, he says.
“Homeowners generally have to use cash or a home equity line of credit to finance ADU construction,” he says. “There are very few specialty lending products that are geared toward ADU construction. So, really, it’s a big lift for the average homeowner.”
Smith says the city is seeing more interest in smaller, multifamily units but has only permitted one standalone tiny home.
‘The Green Bean’
Cody Makarevitz would love to put his tiny home — which he calls The Green Bean — inside the city.
“I’ve been dreaming about it since I moved to the area,” he says. “There are a ton of houses that have those backyards with the alleys. It would be perfect to slide one on back there and make it happen.”
Looking to avoid debt, Makarevitz built his first tiny house in his mom’s backyard a few years ago. He later moved it to Tiny Estates in Elizabethtown, where he worked maintenance for a few years.
Today, his tiny home is still there, but he’s struck out on his own, starting Comak Tiny Homes. He’s renting a space to build tiny homes that he markets on the internet. He’s completed five. His most recent headed to Michigan.
Makarevitz is pausing for a bit to see what happens with material costs before building another. As those have risen so have tiny house price tags. One that went for $45,000 four years ago would now sell for $75,000 or $85,000, he says.
Makarevitz says he thinks his Michigan customers are living in their tiny home while trying to work things out with their township. He says potential customers always want to know what they can do legally. He’s always telling them to check with their municipalities.
“If you just happen to find someone who’s not into it, they’re just going to slap the ‘no’ on it and call it a day,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll let you go and live there. Until they don’t. Until some neighbor complains. I wish it was more structured.”
In 2018, the Lancaster County Planning Commission created a planning tool designed to help municipalities address tiny homes. Individual townships continue to do so — along with tackling ADUs in a broader sense — at their own pace.
In February, for example, East Hempfield Township made a change that allows owners to get approval for secondary units without being granted special exception from the zoning hearing board — but only if the unit is being used for parents, grandparents or other family members.
“When you’re talking about ADUs in the abstract, it’s pretty safe to say a large majority of people feel good about them in concept,” Morley says.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t specific neighborhood opposition.
“The most commonly cited reasons for local opposition tend to be things like parking and property value,” he says.
Morley says that while there are exceptions, research shows in aggregate they don’t tend to cause parking issues. Stronger research shows they actually increase property values, he adds.
ADUs’ potential for opening the door to more Airbnb and Vrbo listings can also ruffle feathers.
“When any locality is considering new regulations for accessory dwelling units, I can virtually guarantee that the issue of short-term rentals is going to come up,” he says. “Lots of places permit short-term rentals in ADUs and lots of places explicitly prohibit them.”
Tiny houses, big business
Morley says larger builders who are starting to specialize in accessory dwelling units are creating some economies of scale.
That’s what the owners of Tiny Home Estates are trying to tap into by building tiny homes themselves, says Abby Shank, who has the helm there.
Shank says Live Tiny, the sales arm of Tiny Estates, now has an Elizabethtown warehouse about five miles from the campground where tiny homes are being built. Those efforts are unrelated to what Makarevitz is doing. Shank says Live Tiny is joining forces for the new homes with an architectural design firm and with Atomic Homes — an offshoot of Lititz-based Atomic, known for building massive entertainment stages.
The move is part of a COVID-19-prompted pivot at Tiny Estates, which started with a hotel-like model in which people rented a home, often just for a few nights. In the months after the start of the pandemic, some guests that had been cooped up acted like they were on spring break, she says. Major damage was done, which made it difficult to meet reservation requests.
So in October 2020, the focus switched to more of a mobile home park model in which Tiny Estates rents out the lots and individuals own the tiny homes.
These are people like a couple who have a home in the Virgin Islands and a tiny home at Tiny Estates for when they want to visit grandkids in apartments across the street, Shank says. Even though they’re not in a residential backyard, that couple still has strings to deal with. Shank says they signed an agreement not to be at Tiny Estates for more than 181 consecutive days so as not to jeopardize campground status.
Tiny Estates has 58 existing lots for tiny homes and is currently constructing another 21, which by June 1 will bring the total to 79, she says. Some people have been renting lots without homes on them in order to lock in spots while they wait on their builders, Shank says.
As with so many things, tiny home supply isn’t keeping up with demand — and not just at campgrounds like Tiny Estates but for residential properties, she says.
“A lot of builders out there are smaller … great carpenters but not necessarily growing to scale with the industry,” she says.
They crank out, maybe, 15 homes a year and are happy with that, she says, but adds that creates long waitlists.
“We’ve had a ton of interest from people saying, ‘Can you do another community near me?’ ” Shank says. “And we’re sitting back saying if we did, we’d want to make sure — that with the products we’re bringing — we can scale to fill the community quickly and not have to wait 10 years.”
She says that among the issues inherent in the tiny home industry is the fact that there is not a nationally recognized tiny home code.
What Live Tiny is selling is being built to a standard that Shank says would meet park code in Florida — something that gives officials in varied municipalities something to latch onto. They’re typically willing to work with people if they have some sort of boilerplate to go off of, she says.
Townships familiar with the Dawdy Haus, for example, tend to be more at ease with proposed ADUs, she says. Dawdy is one way to spell the Pennsylvania Dutch word for grandfather – a nod to a longtime tradition of accessory dwelling units for multiple generations on Amish farms.
Sometimes Dawdy Hauses are obvious from the road and sometimes — as in cases when they’re connected to a main dwelling by a covered porch — not so much, says Steven Nolt, director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies and professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College.
He says a key reason for intergenerational living among the Amish is that, with few exceptions, the Amish don’t participate in Social Security or Medicare but instead take that responsibility within the community. Amish residents in nursing homes are rare, he says.
“In fact, part of the rationale in 1965 when Congress exempted the Amish from these programs was the Amish practice of, and promise to continue, taking care of their elders within their families via the Dawdy Haus system,” he says.
Bart Township officials are plenty familiar with the Dawdy Haus concept but still face some challenges.
While the city is dealing with obstacles like access constraints, septic considerations can cause complications for additional homes on larger parcels in that rural township.
In the Southern End, nitrate levels make things tricky, says Ray Marvin, chairman of the Bart Township supervisors. There are ways to work around that — such as getting septic-related easements from farms next door, he says. And typically, the agreement in Bart is that a Dawdy Haus has to come down when its intended generation no longer lives there.
After Marvin’s first wife died a few years ago, he himself almost built an ADU that would have put him and some grandkids on the same property.
“I was actually going to go the Dawdy flat route,” Marvin says. “For one reason or the other we kept dragging our feet. Maybe God knew better because I ended up getting remarried.”
Still, Marvin says he has appreciation for the family and community spirit that the Amish have with their Dawdy Hauses. He’s not alone.
“They’ve kind of kept alive … a tradition that would have been common among a lot of Americans at one time, that we’ve moved away from and are now, perhaps, returning to,” Nolt says. “Maybe it’s for the same reasons. Maybe it’s for different reasons. But we’re coming back to something that they have maintained for a long time.”