Small spaces, big impact – Officials encourage accessory unit rentals - A red stop sign sitting on the side - Logo

ey West officials are breaking ground, taking action and making decisions to enable and encourage the construction of new housing for island workers.

But another, little known and largely untapped, housing option has existed for years, but is just now receiving attention: Accessory units. Also known as mother-in-law cottages, they’re small structures —300 to 600 square feet — that often sit behind or alongside a private residence.

And since 2013, the city has allowed homeowners to rent out existing accessory structures and even build new ones, provided the rent is affordable and the tenant is a permanent Key West resident.

Additional rules exist to regulate the use of accessory units as affordable housing options, but “I think accessory units probably have more potential than anything to help our housing situation,” Mayor Teri Johnston said during Tuesday night’s City Commission while thanking Commissioner Sam Kaufman for including them in his discussion of housing goals for 2020.

“I personally wonder why we don’t have more accessory units [rented out as affordable housing],” Kaufman said. “What can we do to promote it? Maybe we can ask our Planning Department about what we can do.”

The discussion was similar to a proposal long championed by former City Commissioner Margaret Romero that calls for preserving the city’s long-term rental inventory by providing incentives to the landlords that are providing affordable housing to working residents.

Kaufman on Tuesday added that some of the regulations surrounding accessory units might be too prohibitive, including the setback rule that requires an accessory unit to be 25 feet away from the rear property line.

 “Realistically, do our residents have 25 feet of setback space?” Kaufman asked.

The mayor echoed his enthusiasm for accessory units and his concerns about restrictions and setback requirements.

“I don’t know the rationale behind the setbacks, either,” she said. “And I couldn’t believe that when we had our workshop with them a few months ago, local Realtors had no idea accessory units were allowed in single-family zoning districts, which are our largest zoning districts. If we change our setback rules, someone could build a 400- to 600-square-foot unit that would generate income for them and perhaps enable them to remain in their home while providing permanent housing for a working resident. It seems like a win-win to me, but it’s the best-kept secret in the city. We need a strategy to educate people that these opportunities exist.”

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