Accessory dwellings? Not quite in Lafayette backyards

Interior designer Nicole LeBlanc recently created her own business building and designing turnkey accessory dwelling units in Lafayette called WELNEST. Photo by Robin May

Cities around the country have turned to accessory dwellings, like pool houses, mother-in-law suites and garage apartments, as a solution to their affordable housing needs in recent years. Changing local regulations to add them to the local housing supply has often been a battle.

On that count, Lafayette is ahead of the curve. Accessory dwellings are broadly allowed in Lafayette’s local codes. But few people are taking advantage of that.

Lafayette allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in every type of residential zoning, making it relatively straightforward to add them to existing homes in most neighborhoods. But even as rents have increased, ADUs remain relatively rare. Just four have been built in the past two years, according to city permits.

That’s a stark contrast from other cities facing severe housing shortages, particularly on the West Coast, that have seen widespread adoption of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) after changing their local rules to allow them. 

“These things are just blowing up everywhere,” says interior designer Nicole LeBlanc, who recently launched a business building turnkey ADUs in Lafayette. “Maybe the tendency here in housing is to build big, but I think slowly that is going to change.”

LeBlanc designed and built a 600 square-foot, ADA-compliant prototype ADU next to her own house in the Saints Streets last year as a launchpad for her business and a multifunctional living space for family. Versatility is the key appeal of ADUs, she says, and at least part of their scarcity in Lafayette comes from a lack of awareness.

To add living space within her accessory apartment's 600 square-foot footprint, Nicole LeBlanc added a 120 square-foot loft.

“The people we're trying to reach are essentially us: middle-aged, kids are almost out of the house, aging parents,” she says. “But it also could be an office. That's the thing. The possibilities are endless. So I think once people start to understand it's not just something you can Airbnb, I think it's going to catch on.”

Lafayette’s local rules do throw up some roadblocks, particularly for areas around Downtown and UL where students and young professionals might otherwise make them more popular. That’s because Lafayette limits the size of ADUs to the greater of 500 square-feet or 25% of the primary home’s footprint, effectively imposing the 500 square-foot limit on most properties in older neighborhoods where houses are typically smaller. 

That’s the first half of a critical barrier to the potential for ADUs to address Lafayette’s need for more affordable housing, and it hurts the city’s ability to keep young talent in town, since early-career professionals often prefer to live near active city centers, like Downtown.

The second half, and perhaps the more challenging one, is cost. As rental properties, ADUs don't quite pencil out in Lafayette. And that matters if they are to be deployed as a means of adding housing options for young professionals, who can find lower relative housing costs alongside better job opportunities in bigger cities like Houston and Dallas.

The twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, well known for local housing policy experimentation, have similarly seen little embrace of ADUs despite widely allowing them in 2014. That’s because new-build ADUs aren’t actually affordable in either housing market, at least not for their diminutive sizes.

John Petersen, who is adding an accessory apartment to his property Downtown, says renting out his new ADU to a long-term tenant wouldn’t be financially feasible. His ADU is capped at 500 square-feet by local development rules, which he says could work for occasional use as a short-term rental, but its size makes it too small to rent out long-term at a price that would cover his building costs.

“At this particular moment for a lot of places in town, if you sat down and did the math, it would put you very much on the fence,” he says. “If we wanted to long-term rent ours … we would need to get $1,500 a month to break even on what the addition will add to our mortgage.”

That’s a nonstarter for what is effectively a 500 square-foot studio apartment, particularly in a market like Lafayette, where the median rent for an entire three-bedroom house is $1,675, according to Zillow. And it’s a likely explanation for why existing homeowners haven’t embraced ADUs as a way to generate additional income. 

“You're gonna go through all that trouble, and you're gonna get a lease where you're maybe doing a little better than breaking even,” Petersen says. “Then things are gonna break, and you're gonna have maintenance. And you're gonna have a tenant, so now you have a little more responsibility.”

“I’m not sure, if that was the only option we had for how to use it, that I would have even started down the road,” he adds.