Utah lawmaker sees a way to boost housing: Make mother-in-law apartments easier to build

Bountiful lawmaker laments the “thicket” of barriers, but cities may push back against the state dictating permits.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, is backing a bill in the 2021 Utah Legislature that would bar cities from placing restrictions on the construction of some in-home dwellings such as mother-in-law and basement apartments.

In their quest to bring in more moderately priced housing, more than half of Utah’s largest cities have given a nod to so-called mother-in-law apartments.

From self-contained living spaces in basements and above garages to stand-alone backyard homes, allowing these accessory dwelling units has become a go-to strategy for cities wanting to bolster housing, especially as Utah home prices and rents keep rising.

The idea is, ADUs are generally less expensive and easier to build, appeal to many socioeconomic walks of life and tend to blend in better with existing neighborhoods.

But a Utah lawmaker argues that while cities say they want more of these dwellings, they’re instead creating too many bureaucratic barriers for property owners to build ADUs within their existing homes, even while the state fights an ongoing housing shortage.

“It’s like a thicket of obstacles,” said Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful. “And if we have 10,000 regulations at the city and county levels — which we do — that restricts supply, and we shouldn’t be surprised that supply and demand keep getting further and further out of line.”

Ward has a bill awaiting the 2021 Utah Legislature, which convenes Jan. 19, that would wipe away key city powers for regulating these dwellings when they’re constructed inside a single-family residence, including controls on their size, the number of devoted parking spaces required, and how the units face the street.

HB82 would permit these in-home dwellings anywhere cities currently allow ADUs. The measure also tweaks building codes to eliminate rules that ADUs have their own additional utilities such as heating and cooling, electrical and sewer lines.

The bill would create a system of state-backed grants intended to foster loans to homeowners for ADU construction. The hope, Ward said, is that state support will encourage reluctant banks and other lenders to finance what can often be costly in-home projects. Homeowners who funded their ADUs this way would, in turn, be required to lease the units at slightly below market rents.

HB82 is written narrowly to cover ADUs only in owner-occupied homes, with the intention of limiting their use as short-term rentals, including on online platforms such as Airbnb. Still, the measure is certain to meet pushback on Capitol Hill from cities hoping to preserve their ability to regulate these forms of housing.

The bill doesn’t take aim at detached dwellings such as smaller homes built in backyards, only what it calls “internal ADUs” such as basement apartments. Ward estimated those units make up 90% of all ADUs in Utah.

The Bountiful lawmaker and family physician said his proposal seeks to address a basic imbalance in city government, where elected leaders are predisposed to protect the interests of existing residents while neglecting the needs of those wanting to move into their communities.

“It’s not surprising that time after time after time, city councils make rules to satisfy the one group and ignore the other group,” Ward said. “That’s just fundamentally unfair.”

A draft version of HB82 is circulating just as dozens of local governments in Utah are changing their approaches to ADUs in light of the housing crisis.

A state law passed in 2019 has forced Utah counties, cities and towns to adopt new policies to promote more moderately priced home construction — or risk giving up crucial state money for their transportation needs.

A spokesman for the Utah League of Cities and Towns said cities welcomed Ward’s ideas on state financing for ADUs through the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and on updating building codes, but the league’s policy committee sees major problems with other portions of the bill, particularly on parking.

“The idea of the state stepping in and essentially dictating parking standards for every community, every neighborhood and every piece of property in the state is concerning,” said the league’s executive director, Cameron Diehl.

More basically, he said, cities want to tailor ADU rules to the needs, character and city service levels of their distinct neighborhoods.

City officials, he said, “know their needs better than anybody else. The concern is when the state steps in, you get a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t acknowledge that the ADU situation is different in different cities.”

Statewide, current estimates are that after almost a decade of demand outpacing homebuilding, Utah has a gap of about 53,000 homes, particularly at more affordable prices. Meanwhile, prices and rents keep climbing at record rates, and many families are doubled up in the same home or struggling with housing costs.

Given nearly two dozen separate policy moves they can take under state law to promote more housing, most cities have chosen to pursue accessory dwellings, research shows. Seventeen of 20 municipalities in Salt Lake County alone have opted to allow ADUs in some form as one of their moderate-housing strategies.

That could change if Ward’s bill passes, said Diehl. Cities may balk at allowing any ADUs in residential zones — if it means basement apartments automatically will be permitted under state law with limits on local control.

Salt Lake County itself is only the latest local government to debate new rules to allow ADUs, after several public hearings and input from its townships and community councils. The county’s draft ordinance would authorize the extra dwellings across several residential zones, saying ADUs are “an important tool” in its overall housing plan.

Its rules permit ADUs for single-family homes with a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet or 12,000 where the add-on dwellings are detached. ADUs can be no more than 1,000 square feet or 40% of the existing home’s square footage and require two parking spaces per unit.

The county ordinance would require that owners get a business license and seek to bar ADU use for short-term rentals, requiring leases of at least 30 days.

A spokesman for the county’s regional planning and transportation office said a final vote on the new ordinance, previously set for Tuesday, had been delayed to allow for further discussion among newly elected County Council members.