Connecticut’s large, old houses are a resource that any town should treasure — not just for their charm and historical value, but because of their potential for adaptation. One tool that can help ensure the viability of these structures is zoning, and particularly zoning for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). There’s a movement to  legalize ADUs statewide. It’s a good idea whose time has come.

ADUs are independent living spaces housed within single family homes or in adjacent structures, like the second story of a garage.  Because of their size, ADUs provide naturally affordable housing. They also help homeowners create value in their homes, as homes with ADUs can increase in value by up to 50%.

My experience with ADUs illustrates the point.

For 45 years, I lived in the West End neighborhood of Hartford less than a mile from downtown. The neighborhood is an enclave of Victorian, Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Colonial Revival houses built from about 1885 to 1925 on side streets off of Farmington Avenue. It came into being when the trolley was extended from downtown in the 1880’s; a real estate boom ensued. Twenty-four foot wide side streets were built and the farmland was subdivided into 60-80-foot house lots. Bluestone sidewalks (mostly still there), curbs and large trees graced both sides of the road.

By 1974 when we bought our 1870 house on Kenyon Street for $44,000, the West End was declining. Because of strict single-family zoning, in place since 1920, property values and owner-occupancy were falling. As a solution, rooming houses began to proliferate with licenses from the city.

Our 2 1/2 story, 3,400 square-foot house had had no improvements since 1920. The first year we lived there we discovered that the slate roof was beyond repair and had to be replaced. For 47 years we upgraded the house gradually, improvements that were made possible by the third- floor income, which rose from $250 per month in 1974 to $950 in 2020.

In 2015 the carriage barn was virtually rebuilt for $250,000 — but only after a five-year zoning battle for a special permit to make it legal. The second-floor carriage house apartment now yields $1,800 per month and is occupied by a single professional who pays his own utilities. By the time I came to sell, it was a pretty spiffy place and the neighborhood was mostly owner-occupied again being sought after by buyers and renters alike.

Amazingly, in 2016 an entirely new Hartford zoning code introduced and enabled ADUs. It gave a name to and validated what had been happening in the West End for over 45 years. West Enders are gradually applying to legalize what’s already in place.

In the West End, where ADUs proliferate, parking is a minimal problem. Most properties can accommodate one extra space on site, and if not, street parking is a good thing — it narrows the street and slows cars; it is good urbanism. More eyes on the street and more cars on the street are security measures.

The coalition touting statewide legalization of ADUs, Desegregate Connecticut, aims to enable property owners to use their properties like I did. While my house was in a city, ADUs can work in cities and suburbs alike, and especially well in neighborhoods with “obsolete” historic houses that want to both upgrade the physical condition and the tax base, and to painlessly diversify and integrate its population.

Strict zoning rules, from preventing non-relatives occupying ADUs to preventing the use of detached units like garages, hurt property owners and neighborhoods. The proposed legislation would lift these types of rules, while still allowing towns to require owners to live in ADUs and to limit short-term rentals.

Legalizing ADUs increases real estate value and broadens the tax base. It gives comfort to new buyers, who know that they can unlock the value of their property with ADUs if they so choose.

Last May, my house sold for $500,000 — the highest price ever on Kenyon Street.

Toni Gold of Hartford is a community development and historic preservation activist.

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