Accessory apartments

Tonight, I was proud to vote in favor of an ordinance to establish an accessory apartment permit program in Blacksburg. This is an issue that has been championed by Vice Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith over the years and came into fruition today.

These apartments go by many names: mother-in-law suites, basement apartments, garage apartments, granny flats, etc. They were popular in the early part of the 20th century but fell out of favor after World War II when suburban-style development began to take hold. In Blacksburg, they were allowed until 1976, when a town ordinance banned the construction of new accessory apartments due to concerns about occupancy, parking, and neighborhood character. In recent years, towns and cities around the country have begun to reconsider this housing type. I am pleased that Blacksburg has passed an ordinance that, while allowing accessory apartments, protects our neighborhoods and quality of life.

By requiring owner occupancy, this ordinance not only prevents landlords from abusing the system, but also encourages owner occupancy within neighborhoods and provides an avenue to make home ownership more affordable for many. Even the units themselves are typically affordable.

Of course there are also going to be challenges associated with accessory apartments, particularly code enforcement. These units have many of the same code enforcement issues as over-occupied properties, and with the recent passage of the Homestay Ordinance, we are placing more and more requirements on town staff. However, I am confident that with the proposed addition of three new positions in the Planning and Building Department in our budget that we are moving in the right direction and will meet these challenges.

While I did vote in support of this ordinance, I also submit that it is a work in progress. In particular, I believe that we should allow accessory apartments within freestanding structures. By limiting accessory apartments to existing structures or additions to these structures, the ordinance leaves out a significant number of people who could participate in the permit program. My hope is that Town Council will revisit these regulations next year to determine what is working and what is not and make changes as appropriate.

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