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Advancing a Policy to Support Accessory Dwelling Units

The impact of a 2018 AARP Community Challenge project in Lexington, Kentucky

The combined government of the City of Lexington and Fayette County, Kentucky, represents a growing population of more than 323,000 residents. The area has a housing shortage. 

As small houses or apartments that exist on the same property lot as a single-family residence, Accessory Dwelling Units — or ADUs — can help meet housing demands by adding smaller, often affordable housing to existing neighborhoods. ADUs are especially useful for older adults (12.6 percent of Lexington-Fayette County's residents are 65-plus) who want to downsize but remain in the community they call home. For ADUs to be a viable housing option in Lexington, however, the city’s zoning code needs to be changed. There had been discussions and unsuccessful attempts to amend the city’s code for more than a decade.

According to Kristy Stambaugh, director of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Division of Aging and Disability Services, The Senior Services Commission went to the city’s planners in 2018 and asked, ‘What will it take to help explain and simplify the ADU process for homeowners?’ Their answer: A manual.”


Photo by AARP Kentucky

The winners of the University of Kentucky ADU design competition stand with Kristy Stambaugh, director of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Division of Aging and Disability Services, while displaying oversized replicas of their awardee checks.

The Project: Amending the Zoning Code for ADUs

In the spring of 2018, the Division of Aging and Disability Services applied for and received a $10,000 AARP Community Challenge grant to support an ADU design competition with the University of Kentucky’s College of Design; community engagement sessions with community members; and the development of an ADU manual for residents.

AARP Community Challenge

AARP Community Challenge

Click on the image to learn about the AARP Community Challenge.

The competition aimed to support students and professionals who had ideas for what ADUs could look like and then provide tangible documents to help the public and local leaders understand what the introduction of ADUs could mean to the community. 

A total of 17 original designs were submitted with nine from students and eight from alumni now working as housing professional. The winners were announced at a public event and received small cash prizes. 

While the competition was underway, the city developed the draft manual (see the link below), which explained the basics of ADUs and included information and regulations specific to Lexington’s pending ordinance, which was under development at the time. 

Homeowner's Guide to Accessory Dwelling Units is based on a publication, Accessory Dwelling Unit Manual, that was created by Santa Cruz, California, and it was influenced by community meetings with residents. The completed manual served as a guide and resource, along with winning designs from the competition, at community meetings to discuss the pending ordinance.

Stambaugh and Chris Woodall, Lexington-Fayette’s manager of long-range planning, and Chis Taylor, administrative officer for long-range planning, note there was skepticism and concerns from some members. While the manual and model ADUs didn’t stop all opposition, the materials did help provide residents with a clearer understanding of what the ordinance would do and allow.

“The ADU manual that came out of this grant, a tangible document that people can have in their hands to understand what we're talking about, was crucial to helping us convey the message we needed in order to bring about change," says Woodall.


Photo by AARP Kentucky

Residents attending a community meeting learn about ADUs.

The Results: Awaiting the Final Vote for ADUs

The activities supported under the AARP Community Challenge grant, along with technical assistance and partnership with AARP Kentucky and other community partners, helped secure the Planning Commission’s unanimous adoption of an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance in October 2019.

“The AARP Community Challenge grant was the catalyst that got us to where we currently are,” says Woodell. “It’s now on the City Council agenda awaiting final approval — the last step of a process a decade in the making.”

The manual continues to serve as a tool for ongoing community conversations and city planners report continued inquiries from residents about constructing ADUs on their properties. 


Covers of the Lexington's ADU manual and a free ADU publication by AARP. (See the link below to order or download "The ABCs of ADUs.")

Advice for Replicating the Work

A key step is to engage the right partners within local government. “The partnership between the Senior Services Commission and planning was important,” Stambaugh explains. “People at conferences have been shocked at how much the department of planning was engaged in the process and with the age-friendly work in Lexington. Part of the success can be attributed to the huge community engagement effort and a willingness to put in the time and be fully engaged throughout a long project.”

Her advice to other community’s wanting to do similar ADU policy reforms: “Cultivate the partnerships at the start. There’s a lot of misinformation around the subject so it helps to get everyone on the same page.”

Communities can replicate the Lexington-Fayette competition by partnering with a university and local design firms. The manuals created by Lexington-Fayette and Santa Cruz are both available online. (The links are noted above.)

Another resource is Accessory Dwelling Units: A Step by Step Guide to Design and Development, created by the AARP Public Policy Institute and featuring ADU policies Austin, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Oakland, California; and Washington, D.C.

Text by Mike Watson, reporting by Evey Owen
Published in August 2020 based on the project’s after-action reports, media coverage and an interview conducted in July 2020

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