What’s the future of housing in Allen County? ADUs and tiny homes might offer solutions

When it comes to large, single family homes, the housing market is hot and relatively affordable in Fort Wayne.

Those looking to buy a house during the pandemic are often in fierce competition with one another, as there is a deficit between the number of people looking to buy and the number of houses on the market. 

But what you might not realize is that this housing deficit extends beyond traditional single family buyers to residents seeking affordable and adaptable living options, too. 

Fort Wayne has long had a shortage of safe Section 8 housing and affordable housing for those on the brink of Section 8. Then when the moratorium on evictions began during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pam Brookshire, Vice President of Community Services for Brightpoint, confronted a deeply unsettling reality locally and across Indiana.
Pam Brookshire, Vice President of Community Service at Brightpoint.
"The housing system is actually relying on people to get evicted to provide enough housing for everyone who needs it at any given time," Brookshire says. "When the pandemic and moratorium on evictions began, there was truly no place for a lot of families and individuals to go."

This challenge is not unique to Fort Wayne. Across the U.S., there’s a housing supply shortage, with the market lacking about 3.8 million units needed to keep everyone housed. This lack of housing is compounding as Generation X and Baby Boomers seek to age independently and younger generations seek smaller, more affordable living options.

So how can Fort Wayne diversify its housing market and create more opportunities for residents to own homes, build wealth, and age independently? We examine two solutions residents and local leaders are exploring.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU)

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are self-contained units built on a property with another separate residential unit. They are sometimes referred to as in-law suites or secondary suites, as they are a common solution for those with aging parents or other relatives who may not be able to live completely on their own, but don’t need complicated medical care. 

ADUs allow residents to have privacy and a sense of independence while still being close to family and friends and sharing expenses. In many places, these units can be attached or detached from the main residence. But in Allen County, ADUs must be attached (except in certain specific agricultural zones).

Amy Beatty's accessory dwelling unit that was added on in 2012 to accommodate her mother.

About 10 years ago, Amy Beatty added an ADU to her home on Oakdale Drive in Fort Wayne for her mother. Beatty is an only child who grew up in a multi-generational family home, so she says it wasn’t a difficult decision to have her mother move in. On the contrary, she was worried about the hefty price tag that comes with many retirement communities, nursing homes, and other types of assisted living communities. 

“Within a year to a year and a half, my mother would have had to go on Medicaid because there simply wasn’t enough money for a nursing home,” Beatty says.

Amy Beatty's accessory dwelling unit was added on in 2012 to accommodate her mother.
But while an ADU appealed to her, the process of making it a reality wasn’t easy. She says there are a lot of questions homeowners need to ask and factors to consider when adding an ADU to their residence, like the cost of constructing and maintaining it. The decision also comes with personal life adjustments, which can entail a role reversal between parents and children, where clear expectations need to be determined for things like chores, bills, and boundaries to avoid conflict. 

In some cases, the stress of these factors can be reduced by early planning and having difficult conversations about the future upfront. 

“It's uncomfortable,” Beatty says. “It’s talking about a change, not only in your parent’s life, as far as them getting older themselves, but it’s all the sudden realizing your parents won't be around forever and that brings up some uncomfortable thoughts.”

Amy Beatty in her accessory dwelling unit that was added in 2012 to accommodate her mother on Oakdale Dr. in Fort Wayne.

Because Beatty’s home has a historical designation, she needed a few special approvals to add her ADU. Even so, she says there are still a lot of barriers to creating these units, even on typical houses in Fort Wayne.

For example, homeowners must meet code requirements set by Allen County. Patrick Rew, Senior Planner for Allen County’s Department of Planning Services, says the current code for ADU requires that the dwelling not be larger than the original residential unit. It must have separate cooking, sleeping, and sanitation from the original unit. It must only be accessible from inside the original unit, and it has to use the same utility meter and address as the original unit. 

The bathroom in Amy Beatty's accessory dwelling unit that was added on in 2012 to accommodate her mother. The bathroom is equipped with a roll in shower.

These ordinances concerning attached ADUs were updated in 2014. Rew says the updates are intended to be more specific, but also to make it easier for Allen County residents to add ADUs.

Beatty constructed her unit before the updates were in place, so she faced stricter regulations, as well as regulations due to her home's historical designation. Even so, she would do it again in a heartbeat. Her mom lived with her for six years. 

“She could continue to be as independent as she wanted to,” Beatty says. “She could close the door and have her own space, but she could live within our house. She could cook if she wanted to cook. She could have friends over and entertain. She wasn’t confined.”

The breakfast room addition was put in at the same time as the accessory dwelling unit that was added to accommodate Amy Beatty's mother.

Even so, there are many reasons an ADU might not be the right choice for some families, especially because of the cost. While there are limited options for seniors wishing to age in place, options are even fewer for seniors needing affordable living options, as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and retirement communities are not always inclusive to those with low or fixed incomes.

Organizations, such as Lutheran Life Villages, offer cottages that range from 1,140 to 1,676 square feet in various floor plans at their new Fort Wayne development, Piper Trail. These units start at $1,575 per month with a one-time 80 percent refundable deposit. Lutheran Life Villages also has three other senior communities in Northeast Indiana. They’re one of many senior living communities in the area.

Houses in the Piper Trail community from Lutheran Life Villages. Piper Trail is a planned, single-family home neighborhood for active adults, ages 55+, set within a larger residential neighborhood.

Thinking of the populations Brightpoint serves, Brookshire says some of these communities require senior citizens to have thousands of dollars just to move in or to secure a residence. That doesn’t include the monthly or yearly cost of living there either, nor does it equate to ownership of a residence. 

For many people, finding a place to age with adequate care and amenities can run their bank accounts dry. Even those with decent insurance might not be in a position to foot the bill of a long-term stay in a nursing home. 

Additionally, these options can corral seniors into homes and neighborhoods that are typically only for senior citizens, removing them from intergenerational neighborhoods and community connections they have established over a lifetime. Restrictions on visitors, food, and when residents can come and go can make these communities feel even more removed from independence and privacy. 

Tiny Homes

Another housing solution that might benefit older and younger generations in Fort Wayne alike is tiny homes, or homes that are 600 square feet or smaller. These compact, more affordable homes can serve seniors looking to age in place, as well as the Millenials and Gen-Xers who don’t have the resources to buy a larger home or simply prefer smaller living spaces. They can provide avenues for residents seeking social mobility through homeownership, too.

Residents can renovate existing tiny houses like this one at 1126 Lexington Ave.

But there are not many tiny homes in Fort Wayne, largely because Allen County’s current code does not allow new tiny homes to be built by residents. Instead, the code requires homes to be at least 950 square feet or larger. County officials have said there is no specific reason why this 950-square-foot minimum rule is in place. However, it does follow national housing trends concerning the growing median size of American homes, according to data released by the Census Bureau. 

For the past two decades Americans, on average, have been building bigger homes. Even so, expansive, single-family homes are not suitable, affordable, or attainable for everyone. Tiny homes are often cheaper to build and buy. Their size often makes them easier to furnish and maintain, too.

As a local nonprofit helping to address poverty, Brightpoint has hosted several meetings to explore the benefits of tiny homes in Allen County, but is having trouble getting tiny home companies to come to the community due to its preexisting housing ordinances. While residents can apply for a variance with the Board of Zoning Appeals to build tiny homes, the path to securing these variances can be unclear and time-consuming. 

Rew says his team hasn’t heard a lot of insistence from residents seeking smaller homes in Allen County, so there isn’t currently any chatter from officials about changing the minimum square footage for homes. His team is open to changing ordinances based on the wants and needs of residents, but they also have to consider how changing these ordinances might affect property values and neighborhoods as a whole.

“So where do we want to allow, say, a 600-square-foot house? Do we want to make a district for that? Then they can rezone to it,” Rew asks. “Then the planning commissions and commissioners and city council can make a determination on whether or not it’s compatible. Is it going to decrease property values? You start looking at those factors and saying, ‘Is it right here?’ And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s right somewhere else.”

Tiny houses used to be regular parts of neighborhoods like this residence at 1643 Short Street.

It’s these considerations that will require careful deliberation as leaders think about what’s next for housing in Allen County, Brookshire says. Many times, when housing solutions are proposed in neighborhoods, existing residents might exhibit a phenomenon called “NIMBY,” or “Not in My Backyard” syndrome. While residents might agree, in theory, that there needs to be a better system to address affordable housing and homeless challenges in Fort Wayne, not many are willing to integrate housing solutions into their own neighborhoods for fear of how it will impact their home values and neighborhood culture. 

In many ways, restricting tiny homes to one neighborhood would create another concentration of similar housing types in Fort Wayne, and the challenge with any neighborhood of only one type of housing is that it prevents the interaction between people of different ages, interests, incomes, and backgrounds, which ultimately strengthens communities in the long-term.

More than a concentrated tiny home community or an influx of traditional, single-family housing, Fort Wayne needs a more diversified housing landscape.

This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, funded by AARP.
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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.