Adrienne Wilber stands in front of her half-finished ADU in the corner of her parent’s lot. “In our town, there is not a house that I could buy without serious financial investment from either other family members or other people. So I’ve never considered that as an option,” Wilber said. “Working on this project was sort of first built out of the idea that I don’t know what the future of my family looks like and just wanting to have lots of options open to us as far as spaces to live.” (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Whether you rent or buy, housing in Sitka is expensive–median home values and rent prices are consistently among the highest in the state. So, some Sitkans are adding cabins and mother-in-law apartments to their properties to help pay their mortgages and expand Sitka’s tight rental market. Affordable housing advocates want the city to make so-called “Accessory Dwelling Units,” or ADUs, easier to build.

Before the pandemic, 31-year-old Adrienne Wilber lived a transient lifestyle. 

She worked as a mate and crewmember, traveling the world aboard a nonprofit sailing ship, and returned to her hometown of Sitka a few months out of the year. That’s where she was in March 2020 when she found out her entire work season was cancelled.

“I knew that if I didn’t have anything to occupy my time, the like already pretty intense mental strains of the pandemic would just be way worse for me. So I needed something,” she said.

Wilber’s “pandemic project” is a small cottage in the corner of her parent’s property. It’s the first house she’s ever built. The walls and the roof are up but the inside of the 600 square foot studio still needs work.

Adrienne Wilber holds up a beginner’s guide to building inside her half-finished roughly 600-square-foot ADU. “Because I’m operating from such a place of initial ignorance, having never built a house before, it’s very difficult to make predictions of any kind,” Wilber said. “I’m like, I literally don’t even know how many YouTube videos I’m gonna have to look up yet in order to do that, so I don’t know how long it’s going to take me.” (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Before Wilber started this project, she’d never heard of an accessory dwelling unit. She learned from the city planning department that ADU is a catchall term for a small but complete living space added to an existing house, or built nearby on the same lot.

Now, she’s an ADU advocate. She says she’d never be able to buy a home in Sitka on her non-profit salary. And she thinks if more homeowners add them, it could help some of her friends who’ve struggled to find affordable, long-term housing solutions in a place where buildable land is limited.

“Just think, if every house on this block could fit another individual or two people living there in their own house. Maybe you still have a landlord, maybe you still have a relationship with the people who’s land you are living on, but it does provide more options, and people need more options,” she said.

ADUs can also help homeowners. Aaron Routon and his wife tacked a second story apartment onto their house when they were building a downstairs addition. Routon said the income from renting it to a friend helps him and his wife afford things like after school activities for his three kids.

“It’s really big for us as far as the income it generates,” Routon said. “It really allows us the freedom and flexibility to go south and see family there. It also takes some of the pressure off a tighter budget.”

Aaron Routon helps his kids with art projects in their family room. He and his wife added this addition to accommodate their growing family and make space for out-of-town visitors. They also added a 500-square-foot apartment upstairs, which they rent to a friend. The extra income helps pay for travel and after school activities for their kids. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

It’s not just Sitkans who are turning to ADUs to help address housing affordability. Anchorage revised their regulations in 2018 to make them easier to build. And Juneau started a $6000 grant program in 2017 for homeowners who want to add one to their properties. Over 30 people have taken advantage of the program since.

Jeannette Lee works on housing issues in Alaska for the Sightline Institute, a public policy think tank. She said many cities are turning to ADUs as a way to increase population density while still preserving the character of a neighborhood.

“If you create a better…regulatory environment for ADUs, what happens is homeowners can benefit because ADUs increase property values. But if they’re turned into rentals, then you create better conditions in the rental market by providing more choice, more competition,” Lee said.

Lee said cities could do more to encourage ADUs by reducing parking requirements, allowing them in more zones, and streamlining the permitting process.

Sitka’s current ADU policy was created in 2013 and revised in 2015 to make it less restrictive. Right now, they’re allowed outright in many parts of the city as long as they meet a set of 14 conditions, which include things like parking and design requirements. 

But there are still some zones where they’re not allowed at all and others where homeowners are required to get planning commission approval no matter what through a conditional use permit process. And there are no tax breaks or incentive programs to help defray the high cost of construction.

Sitka resident and District 35 Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins has long been a proponent of ADUs to address affordable housing. He thinks Sitka could look to other cities to update their policy.

“Basically my view is like, if Sitka wants to be serious about affordable housing and more housing, it can’t just nibble around the edges at public policy. It needs to like commit itself to a solution,” he said. “So I mean like having a much more aggressive ADU policy than currently exists.”

Sitka’s planning commission has identified allowing ADUs by right in more zones as a top priority in addressing affordable housing issues, along with reducing minimum lot sizes and encouraging denser development.

But at a recent meeting, commissioners said they wanted to make the process more restrictive, by requiring anyone who wants to build an ADU to get a conditional use permit. That way neighbors have a chance to weigh in with things like parking and noise concerns in every case.

Twenty-eight-year-old Katie Riley was the lone member opposed. She said she sees a lot of community support for ADUs, and as a young person in Sitka, affordable housing is a major concern.

“So that, to me, just doesn’t seem like the right direction,” she said. “If we are trying to encourage creative solutions, making the process harder for people to pursue those solutions.”

Whether city policy is actually hurting or helping ADU construction is unknown. Neither the planning or building department keep records of how many ADUs are built each year. Since 2013, 11 have been approved by the planning commission, but that doesn’t include anyone who didn’t need approval through the conditional use permit process.

Wilber, who’s building the cottage in her parent’s yard, said she wasn’t deterred by the process. She had support from friends and family, and the time to put in her own labor. But she knows that isn’t the case for everyone. She sees ADUs as just one piece of Sitka’s affordable housing solution.

“It is a powerful tool as part of what would need to be a multi, multi-part plan.”

When she’ll finish her cottage or whether she’ll move in permanently is yet to be determined. But, she said, it’s nice to have options and to learn a new skill along the way.

Throughout April and May, KCAW News will be bringing you stories about affordable housing solutions every Friday as part of our “Building Solutions” series. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.