Call it a tiny home within a home.

City planners call them “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs — a secondary residence smaller than 800 square feet in an owner-occupied primary residence or separate building such as a garage.

ADUs could be a way to promote affordable housing for homeowners and renters in  Garfield, says Rick Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC).

With BGC, the Pittsburgh Planning Commission is proposing to designate a portion of the neighborhood as an overlay ADU district to permit their development without changing Garfield’s single-family zoning. The key here is owner-occupancy, not duplexes or apartments owned by absentee landlords.

A public hearing is scheduled for April 3. The designation would last for 24 months as a pilot project.

“We used to call them, in the old days, a ‘mother-in-law apartment,’ but that’s probably no longer politically acceptable,” says Swartz. “The overlay enables someone to build and not have to seek variances from the city in order to build a new house or renovate an existing house.”

In the 5300 block of Hillcrest Street, BGC wants to build three two-story homes with basement apartments, designed by architect Rob Pfaffmann, on property currently owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The rental unit in each home would provide monthly income to help the homeowner shoulder a mortgage payment.

“The first and second floor are about 1,100 square feet altogether, which is small in terms of what you typically see with new housing development but not a ‘tiny house,’ which is only about 330 square feet,” says Swartz.

“The goal here is to find a way to build new, single-family homes in the neighborhood that enable somebody with moderate income to be able to afford a mortgage payment.”

BGC hasn’t fully calculated the cost of developing the homes, but estimates it can shave at least 5 percent off construction costs by having EcoCraft Homes construct modular homes that are trucked to the site. Still, to keep the homes affordable for someone with an income of $52,300 or less (80 percent of Pittsburgh’s median income of $65,000 for a family of three), Swartz knows he’ll need to enlist nonprofit organizations or foundations to help subsidize the building costs.

“This is intended to buttress the homeownership rate in the neighborhood,” he says. Currently, Garfield is 42 percent owner-occupied compared to the City’s 48 or 49 percent. “This would allow people to build wealth, not just pay rent to a landlord. We wanted to find a way to do this for people who could not handle a $1,400 or $1,500 monthly mortgage payment alone.”

The BGC board has been “toying with this idea for about a year and a half,” says Swartz. “We’d like to be under construction by October 1st, if possible. That’s going to depend on how we round together financing for the project.”

The organization is approaching it as a demonstration project, he says, since “everyone in the foundation community is worried about the displacement of longtime residents from the neighborhood and having people come in and build houses that are well beyond (the means of) the traditional demographic for the neighborhood.”

Proposed ADU overlay district in Garfield. Courtesy Pittsburgh Planning Commission.

Garfield has more than 400 vacant lots, many of them buildable. But the neighborhood needs more than just new homes, Swartz says; an active greening initiative led by residents would protect wooded areas in the upper part of the neighborhood as a future green zone.

If the city approves an ADU overlay district for Garfield, the designation could become permanent (though another public process would be required). Anyone who applies to build or convert a home with an ADU during the 24-month pilot would have that permission permanently.

Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group’s 2018 summit in May will include a workshop on houses with ADUs, says Swartz.

Coincidentally, Garfield is home to Pittsburgh’s first tiny house, a 350-square-foot home built by Eve Picker, founder and CEO of Small Change. The home on N. Atlantic Avenue sold in 2016 for $109,000.

These days, “there doesn’t seem to be a developer who wants to do them,” Swartz says. “We’re looking at a house styled more for families, as opposed to single people. But if a developer wants to build tiny homes, we’re more than willing to sit down and talk with that developer, too.”