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“We made it small because the idea was that our friend would have her own space but spend more time living at our place. It would be like living in our house only she’d have her privacy.” – Sylvia Allen
Sylvia Allen can’t remember learning about ADUs. She grew up in San Francisco, CA where people have responded to high land prices by dividing homes and apartments.
“Illegal ADUs were a fact of life everywhere. We called them mother-in-laws. They were almost always illegal and unpermitted, but so many people lived in them.” – Sylvia Allen
What convinced Sylvia and her wife Martha to create an ADU on their own double lot was the desire to help Marion, an elderly friend who lived in Florida. Marion had a quadruple bypass surgery and lost her partner at the same time. She needed daily assistance. So the three of them agreed that the most practical plan was for Sylvia and Martha to build an attached apartment so that Marion could live with them. As they worked with Libby and Greg Holah on the design, accessibility was the primary consideration.
“Even though Marion was ambulatory we thought that wouldn’t last long. We thought she’d be in a wheelchair, so we made it wheelchair accessible. The bathroom is almost as large as the rest of the space. We wanted to conserve space so we put a Murphy bed in the bedroom.” – Sylvia Allen
As the design developed, they stressed that it was important to create a high-quality space that would stand the test of time as their primary home has done.
“We wanted to make it like our house because Marion loves our house. Our house is a 1906 craftsman and we restored it to the way it was supposed to be. We wanted to make the ADU a little craftsman thing. Matching the house was part of the permitting, but we wanted that anyway. The back part is not craftsman in appearance, but it looks fabulous. We were required to put the same siding on all of it. We said we would pay more for a green building. Martha feels very strongly about using good materials. So it’s built out of real wood. All of it. We had a conversation with the builder about using materials that were environmentally friendly.” – Sylvia Allen
The interior details of the attached ADU also match their primary home, but on a smaller scale.
“Marion liked our 1950s gas stove. We happened to have in storage a tiny gas stove of the same vintage and same general appearance. We had a little bitty refrigerator, too. Small things to fit in a small space. When the builder was doing the building we asked them to make all the odd little spaces into cupboards and that kind of thing. Like the space under the stairs that they normally would have walled off, we made some oddly shaped but useful cabinets. We made a long storage space under the bottom under the stairs.” – Sylvia Allen
Since their ADU is on the tiny side, they decided to provide extra storage space in a shed. They put a washer and dryer into the shed as well, because after 50 years of schlepping clothes to the laundromat herself, Sylvia declares: “It’s a heck of a lot better to have a washer and dryer!’”
They are pleased with how the ADU turned out and they’re especially proud of the bathroom.
“The bathroom is gorgeous. It’s vast. It’s tiled. We were thinking about what Marion would like. When Marion came to look and visit the ADU in progress, she walked into the bathroom and said ‘Okay, I’m just going to spend the rest of my life in here!’” – Sylvia Allen
Interestingly, once the ADU was built, Marion wasn’t their first tenant and they don’t think she ever will live in the ADU.
“Marion didn’t move in because she listened to her doctor who recommended she get exercise and supportive friends. By the time her ADU was built she was in better health than she had been in 10 years! She also had a thriving social network, so she didn’t want to move. That was in 2008. Now she’s actually gotten pretty frail and she is going to move here and live with us in our house. We have a great long-term tenant and don’t want to displace her.” – Sylvia Allen
They’ve had a couple tenants now, but they don’t have much turnover.
“We farm the rest of our double lot. The couple times we’ve needed to find a tenant, it hasn’t been hard. People stay because they fall in love with being right there on the farm. You walk out the front door of the apartment and you’re in the grape arbor.” – Sylvia Allen
Their current tenant is a good fit and they’ve developed a comfortable relationship with her.
“I’m pleasantly surprised that we have such a good relationship with our tenant. She’s a friend. She wasn’t—we didn’t know her when she moved in. We don’t spend a lot of time socializing with her. Sometimes we’ll have her come up for dinner. Fairly often we’ll stand on the porch and hang out for a bit, talking. I try to give her as much privacy as possible, knowing it’s difficult to be a tenant. I’ve spent most of my life being a tenant. You want to know you have your privacy. She’s not shy about telling us about a problem. I like that. We’re all quiet people. Never once have we had a problem with noise. I hope she’d say the same. She’s responsible. We try to be responsible. She’s a good tenant and we’re good landlords. We have chickens and sometimes we’ll ask her to lock up the chickens at night or turn on the irrigation if we’re not going to be there. It’s nice having another person around. We don’t feel crowded by her. We feel comforted and supported having another responsible person on the property paying attention to things.” – Sylvia Allen
Martha and Sylvia anticipate that their ADU will continue to be a long-term rental in the future.
“It has occurred to us that at some point one of us is going to be left and that person could move into the ADU and rent out the house instead. As far as we know now we’ll rent it out. I don’t think our tenant is going anywhere and we don’t want her to. We choose to charge a below-market rent because of being appalled at gentrification. It’s heartbreaking. We could see that coming in 2008. With the way things have been going, the ADU is now way below market rate. But we’re not starving. We don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution.” – Sylvia Allen
When she considered what she might do differently if she had it to do over again, Sylvia notes:
“I was going to say I would make it bigger because it’s very tiny. It’s a little crowded for someone who isn’t using our house, too. But there wasn’t room to make it bigger. It goes to the edges of where it could go.” – Sylvia Allen
So what advice does Sylvia have for property owners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“It’s worth it to make it good quality. We made it good quality because of who would be living there. We’re really glad we spent the extra money and time to make it good quality because it’s relatively maintenance free. If you’re going to rent it out, be very careful who you rent it to. Make sure it’s someone you like.” – Sylvia Allen