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Adventures in Housing

Adventures in Housing: The ADU

Amy Scott Aug 28, 2019
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Nate Jenkins and Stacie Ginkins-Jenkins built an "accessory dwelling unit" in their backyard in Denver.
Amy Scott/Marketplace

Welcome to our new series. We’re calling it Adventures in Housing. Because more and more, that’s what finding and affording a place to live has become. These will be your stories. About the workarounds and compromises. About buying, selling, renting and moving. About the dorms and shacks and money pits and houseboats and yurts and … you get the picture. Share your stories using the submissions box below. Today, we’re heading into the backyard, home to more and more….. homes.

Nate Jenkins is an architect in Denver. His wife, a pharmacist, is Stacie Ginkins-Jenkins. “My maiden name is Ginkins, with a G-I,” she explained. “His name is Jenkins, with a J-E. Who can pass that up? It’s legal.”

In 2012, Jenkins and Ginkins-Jenkins — let’s just call them Nate and Stacie — bought a little brick bungalow close to downtown Denver, with a big back yard. “It came with a small garage that was equipped to fit a Model T in 1913, and not equipped to fit much else,” Nate, 42, said. But the property was zoned for a separate dwelling in the backyard. So they tore down the little garage and built a bigger one, with an apartment on top.

“Accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, like this are popping up in backyards all over the country, especially in expensive cities where housing costs have exploded in recent years. For Nate, it was kind of an insurance policy. In 2008, at the height of the housing crisis and recession, he’d lost his job as an architect and couldn’t find work. After that experience, he said, “I put it on myself to figure out a way to stabilize any potential downturn that would come again.”

The plan was to rent out the garage apartment, so they’d have some extra income, but as it took shape, the new place started looking better than their house. It was air conditioned. The floors didn’t squeak. Around the same time, they saw the documentary “Minimalism,” about people trying to live more meaningful lives with less stuff.

“It provided me some pause to think about just how much stuff we had, and how much clutter that you end up with,” Nate said. “We just decided to go for it, and move in,” said Stacie, 40. They ditched half their clothes and much of their furniture, rented out the 2200-square-foot house and moved into the 642-square-foot apartment in the backyard.

Nate and Stacie sit in the courtyard between the ADU and the house, which became a neighborhood gathering space.
Nate and Stacie sit in the courtyard between the ADU and the house, which became a neighborhood gathering space.

Inside, it’s modern and bright, with skylights and creative storage. The stairs to a loft space double as cabinets. “Every square inch has a purpose,” Nate said. Sometimes there weren’t enough square inches. They couldn’t fit a dining table, so they ate from a little Ottoman on wheels. Nate had to learn to work in the same room where Stacie was watching “House Hunters” — there was nowhere else to go. But the high ceilings made it feel less like a tiny house,”which I would call it sometimes,” Stacie said, “our tiny house.

Now there’s another tiny house across from them, and a few more down the block. “It’s definitely beautified the alley,” he said. “It’s added safety and activity to the alley.” It’s also created a whole new community. Nate and Stacie divided the big house into two separate rental units, and the space between the ADU and the house created a courtyard gathering space. “We lovingly call it the compound,” Stacie said. “On Sundays we would have parties and the whole neighborhood would come over and hang out and get to know each other as neighbors.”

The compound had a big change recently. After two years of living above the garage, Nate and Stacie moved out a few months ago. They’re expecting a baby Ginkins-Jenkins in the fall, so they found a tenant for the ADU and bought another house a few blocks over. “I absolutely do think it’s too big,” Nate said. “Even with a child, I don’t think we’ll ever need the space that we have there.” But the new place is also zoned for an accessory dwelling unit. They might just do it again.