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Sussex County expands “in-law suite” rules

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Sussex County relaxed its rules for accessory dwellings following the release of the “Housing Agenda” bills by state legislator Senator Russell Huxtable. l PHOTO COURTEST OF JAREK CEBORSKI/UNSPLASH

GEORGETOWN Sussex County recently announced a rule change that could expand affordable housing options in the area, specifically regarding “in-law” suites or apartments.

The ordinance, passed by the Council, brings Sussex County up to speed with statewide and national housing code practices by relabeling “garage/studio apartments” as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and “broadening the rules for where and how such secondary housing can be implemented,” according to a press release from the county.

“The old rules really were impractical and have not done much to create truly usable, livable space,” County Administrator Todd F. Lawson said in a press release from the county. “Housing needs, especially affordability, are very much top of mind today, so we wanted to look at what ways we could, from a land use standpoint, give the public the flexibility they need and promote affordability and housing options here in Sussex County.”

Delaware’s most southern county has permitted this type of housing since 1998, however some argue the rules were too narrow for it to work the way it was intended. Kent County, which allowed such structures since 1985, heard the call last year when Levy Court Commissioners also relaxed accessory dwelling rules.

Last fall, after Kent County adjusted its accessory dwelling rules, Kent County Planning Director Sarah Kiefer told the Delaware Business Times that they have seen an increase in requests from homeowners to build such dwellings in recent years as “multi-generational living is becoming a lot more common.” She also said it can be more economical for both the homeowner and the person who lives in the extra unit.

According to the 2023 – 2030 Housing Needs Assessment released late last year by the Delaware State Housing Authority, the percentage difference of renters versus homeowners who were cost-burdened, or whose “rent or mortgage payments consume 30% or more of a household’s gross income,” was more than doubled.

The report goes on to state that if housing was less expensive, most Delawareans would most likely choose to put that money away in savings or pay off loans.

“We have heard from many of our residents about the rising cost of housing, and the difficulty some people face, especially those who work in an area where they can’t afford to live,” County Council President Michael H. Vincent said in the press release. “Council and staff realize we have an opportunity before us to put into place something that can help with the issues of affordability, and housing in general. This is a great start, and it’s our intent to keep working to find other ways that will help our residents and improve our communities.”

Sussex County’s change to its accessory dwellings rule comes on the heels of a package of statewide legislative bills seeking to address the needs for more affordable housing across the First State. 

Sen. Russell Huxtable proposed a slate of bills dubbed the “housing agenda” to include SB 22, 23, 25, 244, 245, 246 and 247 – all of which are still working their ways through the legislative process. Revised versions of SB 23 and SB 247, which seek to require counties and towns to develop regulations for accessory dwelling units and expand manufactured housing community protections respectively, are in committee. 

The other five bills await votes in the House and seek to offer grant opportunities for investors, lower taxes on developing low-to-moderate-income dwelling units, extend foreclosure programs and create a revolving loan fund for home repair programs.

With six legislative days to go and with legislators weighing several bills before the session ends on June 30, the Delaware Business Roundtable has endorsed Huxtable’s “housing agenda.” The roundtable’s mission is to enhance the quality of life in Delaware by promoting commerce, job creation and select public policy issues. Members of the non-partisan, volunteer consortium represent over 75,000 state employees.

“Having an affordable place to call home is core to Delaware’s quality of life and sense of community. This is a key area for Delaware to continually focus and invest if we want to remain competitive with a strong, equitable economy,” Delaware Business Roundtable Chairman and EDiS CEO Brian DiSabatino said in a press release from the roundtable endorsing the measures.

“To be clear, these bills are important first steps, and they are the hopeful beginning of an effort to seriously address the issue of affordable housing and workforce housing in Delaware,” he added.

Delaware Business Roundtable Executive Director Bob Perkins told the Delaware Business Times that the organization decided to weigh in on the matter considering the state’s low labor force participation.

“Delaware has one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the country across the states,” Perkins said. “That’s not a good thing. We want as many people employed as possible.”

Barriers to finding work don’t end with finding jobs that coincide with the individual’s experiences and training, he added, citing childcare and housing as two of the biggest barriers to labor participation across the state. 

“Particularly in Sussex County where they get a number of seasonal jobs at the beach. It’s very challenging to find workforce housing at the beach in Sussex County,” he told DBT. “This issue is not unique to Delaware. It’s an issue in every state. I really do want to applaud Sen. Huxtable for really generating a package of bills that’s a great start and really is, by far, bipartisan in nature and clearly set wheels in motion to get more done for housing across Delaware.”

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