Tampa Bay explores ADUs as affordable housing solution

No question. Sue Jenkins’ living quarters are tiny.

Yet the 350-square-foot cottage is so much more, and in a big way.

“It’s everything I need,” she says. “It’s peace of mind. It’s total satisfaction.”

Jenkins moved into her small cottage about two years ago after her husband died. Her new home was built behind her daughter Stacey Jenkins’ Seminole Heights bungalow. It’s a solution to a difficult problem facing families when a parent needs assistance but also wants family closeness and independence.

Sue Jenkins shares dinner time and crossword puzzles with Stacey and Stacey’s wife Jennifer Alfonso. And enjoys furry companionship with the family dogs. Stacey Jenkins gives her mother rides to doctors’ appointments and other errands. And she gets peace of mind knowing that her mother is steps away if help is needed.

Increasingly, these bureaucratically named accessory dwelling units (ADU) are growing in popularity. They are more widely known as the mother-in-law suite, garage apartment, small cottage or granny flat. Even man caves and she sheds fill out the wish list for some.

These secondary dwellings also are the focus of local municipalities in the search for solutions to a statewide affordable housing crisis.

“It’s an important tool that all of government should look at as having in their toolbox,” says Ashon Nesbitt, chief executive officer of the Florida Housing Coalition. The nonprofit advocates for solutions to Florida’s affordable housing crisis including ADUs.

“It allows for the addition of new housing within the context of existing neighborhoods,” Nesbitt says.

The cottages and granny flats are not only attractive to older populations. They are also desirable for adult children still living at home or homeowners who later in life want to downsize to a mother-in-law suite while their children live in the primary residence. As rentals, they can provide income that helps people stay in their homes or feel more financially secure.

Nesbitt also includes young professionals just out of college who might struggle to find affordable housing. 

“It has a lot of advantages,” he says.

Local governments in Tampa Bay are amending or reviewing existing regulations on building ADUs to tap into a new housing market. For St. Petersburg residents the process is well underway. In Tampa, city council members are preparing for a September workshop on housing that will include a discussion on the ADUs.

Historically, it’s been an on-and-off love affair with tiny backyard housing.
Garage apartments and mother-in-law suites sprang up in neighborhoods largely unregulated until the arrival of zoning and permitting ordinances in the early 20th century.

Then, as suburbs grew outward from city limits, they fell out of favor. In Tampa, Seminole Heights and the Lowry Park area are the only neighborhoods approved for new ADU construction or conversion based on special overlay districts. Other neighborhoods, including Hyde Park, have detached dwellings or add-ons only if they are grandfathered in. Some owner-occupied properties within the city may qualify for an extended family residence (ERF), an accessory dwelling for family members only. 

The detached garages and small cottages behind the iconic bungalows in Seminole Heights are part of the neighborhood’s character. In a tight real estate market, they now check the box for some home buyers looking for affordable housing alternatives.
In 2022, city council members requested staff members to complete a survey on ADUs to aid in crafting a new ordinance. Most of the approximately 1000 responses came from residents in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Palma Ceia. Many wanted accessory dwellings for family members, but some wanted them as rentals. There also was interest in no or low-interest down payment loans. And many saw ADUs as an investment in neighborhoods.

A 2022 city-generated map shows a proposed expansion of ADUs to the University of South Florida area and more central Tampa neighborhoods, excluding coastal high-hazard areas in south Tampa and Westshore.

An affordable solution 

Two years before the survey, Stacey Jenkins had already done her research on small cottages and mother-in-law suites.

Her parents had relocated to New Tampa from Pennsylvania. A lot happened in a short time. Her father died; COVID put people on lockdown; her mother needed a place to live that was closer to family.

Mother and daughter looked at housing options. Assisted living facilities were financially out of reach. Home prices and rental costs were out of sight. The small cottage, abutting the garage, was the solution with the paired financial resources of mother and daughter. The project came in under $100,000.

“It’s not something I would have been able to fund on my own,” says Stacey Jenkins. “It’s cheaper than what the alternatives are.”

Tampa City Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak moved to Seminole Heights nearly 13 years ago, into a house with an accessory structure. It was a perfect setup to divide workspaces for Hurtak and her husband into backyard and in-home offices.

“We’re a work-from-home couple,” she says.

Infill construction is blooming all over Seminole Heights. And Hurtak notices accessory dwellings increasingly are part of that construction.

The more traditional use is the one chosen by the Jenkins’ family.

But Hurtak, like Nesbitt at the Florida Housing Coalition, points out that younger generations are also looking into the dwellings.

“I see it helping young people who are in college or just getting started and want to live in the neighborhood they want to live in but are not able to afford a full house,” Hurtak says.  

Some critics raise concerns about overpopulating a neighborhood with short-term Airbnb or vacation rentals. State laws block local governments from regulating those types of rentals.

“Unfortunately, our hands are tied on Airbnb”, Hurtak says.

However, Hurtak said there are ways to use zoning laws and code enforcement to help the city regulate property uses including rentals. 

“I’d love to see them (ADUs) expand to other parts of the city to give owners
alternatives to do more with their property,” she says.

Striking a balance

The September City Council workshop will look at Tampa’s overall housing needs, but the ADUs will be part of that discussion.

Henry Moseley is interested in what comes next for accessory dwelling units in Tampa. It is his bread and butter as co-founder of Home Care Suites, the contractor for the Jenkins’ cottage.

He also is the founder of Goldsborough Construction and a member of the Hillsborough County Building Board of Adjustments, Appeals and Examiners.

After helping a friend convert a cabana into a mother-in-law suite, Moseley and his son Henry Moseley III  began studying the wide use of accessory dwellings in Australia and Europe. They were viewed as multi-generational housing and an alternative to more expensive assisted living.

Building cottages and suites as senior housing became a routine offering for Moseley’s company, which builds on average 10 senior living units a year.

Their popularity for seniors and for other living arrangements is spreading, Moseley says.

“Everything is evolving,” he says. “They are evolving very quickly to affordable housing options. I’m a proponent of affordable housing. Whether in Ybor City or other historical centers, a lot of them are already there in one way, shape, or form.”

And Moseley believes the units should be allowed in more neighborhoods. He offers a cautionary note on how the ADU regulations should change, however. It’s a balancing act in crafting rules that encourage the units but also protect neighborhoods, he says. On the other hand, too many restrictions can complicate permitting, he adds, while also adding to construction costs where the goal is to keep ADUs affordable.

“We need to find a way to do it right,” Moseley says.

Expanding to more areas of St. Pete

If Tampa is beginning to rethink its policy on ADUs, St. Petersburg’s reforms are well underway. Though new construction of accessory dwellings in the city halted in the late 1970s, what’s old is new again.

In crafting a 2020 Vision Plan, the city made ADUs part of an overall goal to ease a growing housing crisis. Permits were approved again in 2007.

Over the past five years – most recently in 2022 and March 2023 – the city council expanded permitting for accessory dwelling units to more, and mostly suburban, neighborhoods. Regulations include considerations of lot size, structure size, setbacks and parking. 

The number of permits shows how popular accessory dwellings are becoming, says St. Petersburg City Council Member Gina Driscoll.

In 2019, the city issued 29 permits, she says. The numbers increased to 44 in 2020; 53 in 2021; and 86 in 2022. Those permits cover all areas of the city, Driscoll says.

“Looking at the increase in permits pulled for ADUs it really shows us we’re doing something right,” she says. “People are responding to this.”

This kind of “gentle density increase” is benefiting the city’s aging population and supports multi-generational housing, Driscoll says.

The most recent ordinance, approved in March, opens the door for some property owners to convert their homes or build up to four residences on a “typical” single-family lot. Estimates are that about 3,000 such properties exist. They can support ADUs, garage apartments, duplexes, triplexes or quadplexes.

Those qualifying lots must be near “major future streets” or heavily traveled roads and abut alleys that can provide parking spaces. Designs must match the character of existing housing in the neighborhoods.

Some critics cite strains on the city’s infrastructure or potential code violations. But Driscoll says there is no evidence of increased code complaints due to the units. 
“The infrastructure in St. Petersburg is more than enough to support this new development,” she adds. “There’s always going to be a place for single-family residences. We need to have all kinds of options here.”

As more units across the city open, Driscoll says they will fill in what is generally referred to as the “missing middle” in housing. 

“It’s that area between the single-family home and the big high rises and condo development,” she says. “It’s something that hasn’t received a lot of attention until recently. It’s a great feeling when you see positive results. It inspires me to ask what can we do next.”

For more information, visit City of St. Petersburg; Florida Housing Coalition; Tampa proposed allowable areas for ADUs; Tampa ADUs
For history and examples of national ADU uses, visit Accessory Dwelling Units: Case Study (huduser.gov).
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.