A Housing Solution Right in our Backyard   

On left side is a photo of Gerald Bates standing in front of his ADU and on the right is Sandy Hamilton in front of her ADU
Gerald Bates and Sandy Hamilton standing in front of their ADU’s

Gerald Bates and his wife own a large Victorian home in the West End in Cincinnati’s Dayton Street Historic District. Their tree lined street was once known as “Millionaires Row” because it was the home to many wealthy industrialists in the late 1800’s. 

 A black wrought iron entry gate in the front opens to a garden lined path that leads past the main house on the right to the swimming pool in the backyard. Tucked right behind the pool is a pale-yellow carriage house with a periwinkle door which Bates finished a little over 3 months ago. This carriage house and others like it may help fill a housing gap. 

The U.S. has a shortage of over 5 million homes. One solution might just be in our own backyard called an accessory dwelling unit or ADU. 

UNDERSTANDING AN ACCESSORY DWELLING UNIT 

ADU’s have been known by many names such as backyard cottage, granny flats, or garage apartments. They are significantly smaller than the average home and can be stand-alone structures like garage apartments or converted parts of a home such as a basement or attic apartment. They can even be a bump-out addition to the home called an attached ADU.  

Construction costs and zoning constraints vary greatly depending on the area and neighborhood. In addition, square footage is limited by size, setback allowance, height restrictions, and in some cases, neighbor approval. 

Many cities in our area, including Dayton, Springfield, and Yellow Springs are beginning to relax their zoning regulations to permit ADU’s in residential neighborhoods. Cincinnati already legalized them in 2023.   

By blending a housing unit on existing property and tapping into the existing infrastructure, it reduces the need to build on additional land, especially in areas where land for development is limited. The benefits for a community include more housing choices, rental income, and affordable housing for an invaluable workforce.  

Brick by Brick’s podcast episode about ADU’s as a solution.  

RENNOVATING THE CARRIAGE HOUSE 

Bates had successfully rented out carriage homes in the past and wanted to renovate his too, “I thought that it would, given what rents are in Cincinnati, could provide a substantial income and if at some point we decide to sell the property, that it would give the new owner a substantial income.”  

His carriage house was beyond repair and had to be rebuilt. Bates did not have any major zoning issues since his carriage house was already a preexisting structure. However, he did need to adhere to specific historical requirements consistent with the neighborhood since his home is on the National Register of Historic Places.   

In his initial approved design for the three-car garage below the apartment, each garage had a single door. Bates later decided that he wanted one two-car door for easier access into the garage. The city initially declined, stating it was not consistent with the neighborhood. After showing neighboring homes with the same door configuration the city allowed it, but then added a request for brick material which added to the cost.   

Gerald Bates’ one-car door and two-car door garages.

At first Bates objected but decided it was a tradeoff he could work with. And he did find the Architectural Review Board very helpful with safety and structural improvements in his design.   

The permits took about two months, and the 800-square-foot carriage house with loft area took a few years to build because Bates was paying out of pocket and did not want a mortgage.  

During construction many inquired about it, “We had tons of interest. People would come by, and they would say, are you going to be renting…oh we would be really interested,” Bates shared. 

Renters were already lined up six months before his construction was completed. His friends, empty nesters who had just retired and moved back to Cincinnati from the West Coast, visited the place and immediately decided they wanted it. 

The few hundred-thousand-dollar investment for Bates has added one third value to his property and the rental income covers his upkeep.  “It really takes care of pretty much the expenses of owning a house.”  And so far, it’s working out well for Bates and his wife.  

AGE-FRIENDLY HOUSING OPTION 

But not all backyard cottages are as elaborate. Nine years ago, another Cincinnati resident built one in her backyard but for more practical reasons. Sandy Hamilton from the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati needed a place for her 90-year-old mother who was having trouble taking care of herself.  

Walking up to her front door of her house became a challenge, “Her friends would come and pick her up for the Broadway series or the opera, whatever, but I’d have to go down at eleven o’clock at night in my pajamas to help her up the steps.”  

Her mother wouldn’t consider a retirement home or nursing facility so Hamilton, a retired social worker who has some background in architecture, knew her mother needed a place that was accessible.  

Hamilton thought a backyard cottage in her lot in her backyard would be ideal but had no idea getting permission from the city would take so long. “It was challenging because their personnel kept changing. People either retired or they had different thoughts about what I should be doing,” Hamilton recounted.  

At times, she thought they were just making it up as they went along. Even though Hamilton lives in a corner lot with a driveway on a side street, at one point the city wanted her to build another driveway off a major street for her 90-year-old mother who never drove a car in her life.      

But after a long year of working with the city, her persistence paid off.  Six months after getting the permits she completed the 480-square-foot cottage for around $100 per square foot.  

Hamilton made sure it was fully functional if her mother had ever needed a wheelchair. 

Her mother’s easy access home allowed for many social visits. Hamilton said her mother’s friends would come right in the front door on motorized scooters and park in the middle of the living area. 

She also had French doors which opened to the patio so her mother could get and out to meet her friends anytime and have lunch. “It was just perfect for my mom.”  

Sandy Hamilton’s ADU with patio.

According to AARP, 79% of older adults want to age in their community and the need for safe and accessible senior housing is growing at a rapid pace. In 2034 there will be more people over 65 than under 18.  

For Bates and his renters, having others living on the same property gives an added sense of security as they keep an eye out for each other.  

Hamilton found that her mother was overjoyed to be in the same neighborhood she had lived in for years. And when compared to a retirement facility cost, Hamilton found it to be reasonable, “My mother had some assets, had she lived longer, she probably would have gone through those assets at a nursing home.”  

Hamilton thinks cottage homes are tremendous in fulfilling so many housing needs, from an aunt or grandmother to a disabled child that might have a live-in caregiver, or even a college student home for the summer. While her mother passed away in 2021, Hamilton sees ADU’s as a godsend for many. 

These backyard cottages have their benefits, for Bates increased rental income and added security, and for Hamilton, peace of mind that her mother was close by and cared for. 

Although it was rough initially for both Bates and Hamilton to build their backyard cottages, now that Cincinnati has legalized these structures, the process will be easier for those interested in building one.  

There are still requirements to follow according to each area, as well as sight preparation fees, among other costs, to be factored in when planning. Brick by Brick will be following up with Cincinnati and other cities in our area to see how well this incremental solution is working to address housing needs.  

Are you considering building an ADU? If so, please let us know what you are planning. Just click on the big green button below.


Emiko Moore – Multi-Media Journalist

Emiko Moore is a graduate of Ohio State University has been a freelance producer for NBC News for the last 20 years, covering stories in southwest Ohio and in the tri-state area. She also hosted The Lebanon City Show and was a print journalist for the Western Star, focusing on Warren County. Prior to moving back to her hometown of Lebanon, OH, she worked in NYC for NBC TODAY and NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corporation. As a volunteer with Building Bridges Community Conversations, Ishinomaki Playground Project, and Miller Ecological Park, she believes it takes continuous work to strengthen communities. She is excited about journalism that explores the issues while highlighting solutions to bring about positive change.