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Richmond could ease regulations on accessory dwelling units

A brick building — surrounded by trees — sits behind another larger building in Richmond's Church Hill neighborhood.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Richmond's Church Hill neighborhood is home to a number of carriage houses — one form of an accessory dwelling unit.

An ADU might take the form of a converted carriage house or garage, attic or basement apartment.

Richmond’s Planning Commission advanced legislation Monday to allow homeowners to build secondary housing units on their properties. The proposed changes to the city’s zoning code would allow accessory dwelling units without a special permit in all residential districts.

ADUs are small, independent homes on existing lots and take a number of forms: converted carriage houses or garages, attic or basement apartments, purpose-built units and more. But the city’s ordinance would place some limits on them.

City planning director Kevin Vonck told the commission secondary units would have to be smaller than one-third the size of primary residence or 500 square feet, whichever is larger. And they could only be built on lots with single-family homes.

“You cannot go from two [units] to three or three to four or 80 to 81. This is to go from one unit to two units on that property,” Vonck said.

A person wearing a patterned shirt and bowtie sits in a conference room. A placard in front of them reads "Director Vonck"
Connor Scribner
VPM News
Kevin Vonck, director of Richmond's Office of Planning and Development Review, listens Monday to a presentation during a city Planning Commission meeting at City Hall.

Vonck pitched ADUs as one way to lower housing prices in Richmond by increasing supply.

“One thing that we're always talking about here in the city is increasing the overall number of housing units that we have available,” he said. “As a city that can't grow physically in terms of its boundaries, it's a way to use our infrastructure and limited land more efficiently.”

Sarin Adhikari — principal data manager with PlanRVA — told VPM News that approving ADUs would be one step to increase housing supply, but noted they alone cannot address the city’s housing shortage.

“There is no guarantee, though, that [ADUs] will be below market rate or at market-rate rental, right? And what needs to be done to make those areas available at a lower market-rate rental is, of course, increase the supply pipeline,” Adhikari said. “To increase the supply, definitely you would need to really let go of some restrictive uses. But then again, that requires community buy-in.”

One concern that’s been raised about ADUs is that they may primarily be used as short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb or VRBO. Another ordinance being considered by City Council would limit the number of short-term rentals per residential lot to one.

“You could short-term rental your house, you could short-term rental the ADU, but there would be a maximum in [residential] districts of one per lot,” Vonck said. “So, you'd have to pick which one you're going to do.”

The legislation would also prevent owners from renting units in residential districts for less than 30 days — unless their primary address is on the same lot. Under the current rules, owners must live on the lot for at least half the year.

The proposal also would increase the fee for applying for a two-year short-term rental permit from $300 to $600.

While Richmond first approved short-term rentals in 2020, the city has struggled to properly register the units. According to data provided by the city at the end of June, at least 63 short-term rental permits have been issued in the city. Vonck told the Planning Commission earlier this month that more than 1,000 short-term rentals are being operated in the city.

City Council will hear both proposed ordinances at its Sept. 25 meeting.


Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.