Opening another line of attack on its affordable housing crisis, Salt Lake City plans to wipe away current rules on new accessory dwelling units in favor of a more streamlined design and approval process.
State law already makes ADUs a permitted use inside single-family homes, but a series of reforms afoot in Utah’s capital would lower barriers for property owners who want to add detached dwellings such as backyard cottages and granny flats.
Under the changes vetted at City Hall for almost a year, building add-on homes would be permitted automatically instead of requiring a public hearing before the city’s planning commission and months of delay. Where ADUs are allowed also would greatly expand under the proposed ordinance, which is heading to its first public airing in early February.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall and City Council members are voicing support for more ADUs as the changes take shape, highlighting accessory dwellings as a valuable way to entice more affordable homebuilding and add crucial variety to the city’s depleted housing stock.
But the idea of lowering barriers and allowing new living units in more neighborhoods isn’t as simple as it might seem, especially in light of concerns from residents.
Major differences are already surfacing among council members over the proposal’s relaxed parking requirements per unit and mandates that new dwellings be owner-occupied and barred from use as short-term rentals.
Council member Chris Wharton even described himself as “an evangelist” for using ADUs as a tool to address the present housing shortage, but he warned of potential parking snarls in denser neighborhoods such as the Avenues, Marmalade and Guadalupe without tweaks to the proposed ordinance.
“I can’t support it,” Wharton told recently colleagues, “if it doesn’t have more consideration for those areas.”
‘No actual reason’ for current city approach
The city loosened its zoning to allow ADUs for the first time in late 2018, but applications under that conditional use process have been notably underwhelming, averaging 25 to 32 permit requests a year.
City Hall approval usually takes three to six months and processing costs are an obstacle, according to city Planning Director Nick Norris. None of the ADU requests in the past four years has been rejected, and it’s rare that plans are altered significantly as a result of city review.
“There really is no actual reason to have a conditional use process,” Norris said. “There’s just not detrimental impacts that have been identified that haven’t been addressed by the standards in our code.”
Planning commission members petitioned for the latest ordinance overhaul last February, he noted, after years of watching their meeting agendas fill up with ADU applications.
So the newly proposed rules would make accessory dwellings a go-ahead use on six types of residential lots previously set aside, including properties spread over the city’s foothills and larger-lot single-family properties across Sugar House, Central City, the Avenues, Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
Add-on dwellings would also be permitted in nonresidential areas and commercial zones not used for manufacturing. That includes lots across the downtown core, those located near mass transit stations and properties where duplexes or larger multifamily buildings are already allowed.
The new approach would also be more permissive on the size, height and bulk of detached ADUs. It would ease required setbacks from adjacent yards and include provisions intended to activate nearby alleyways with pedestrian pathways and exterior lighting.
ADUs can be bigger, taller and in more places
In residential areas, the draft rules say an ADU could be 17 feet tall or up to 24 feet with added setbacks, but a unit’s height no longer would be limited by the height of the main residence.
ADUs could be up to 1,000 square feet in size, with that cap sliding up to 1,200 square feet on residential lots that span 12,000 square feet and those located in nonresidential zoning districts. Planning commissioners suggested boosting maximum ADU size in September from 720 square feet to 1,000 square feet — in hopes, they said, of making it more feasible to build family-sized units.
But council member Dan Dugan, whose district includes many east-bench neighborhoods, said he was not in favor of allowing ADUs that large, while fellow council member Alejandro Puy, who represents the west side’s Glendale, Poplar Grove and Fairpark areas, countered that he didn’t “have any concern with that size or going higher.”
Dugan also raised worries over relaxing rules for off-street parking in some older residential neighborhoods, where homes are often built on smaller streets and lack driveways and garages, leaving them vulnerable to bottlenecks when parking is heavy.
“We’re causing more problems than good,” Dugan said, “by not requiring an off-street parking location.”
The proposed ordinance does require one off-street parking stall per ADU, but it makes many exceptions, including when street parking is available in front of the property or if it is located within a quarter-mile of a transit stop or a half-mile from a designated bike lane.
Other council members, meanwhile, worried some of the parking concessions didn’t go far enough. “Parking stresses a lot of neighbors, I understand that,” Puy said, “but I think we need to go bold on this.”
Will the city keep some ADU review?
Even more basic pieces of the proposed ADU rules are also in debate — and that’s before property owners and the public have weighed in, with a first hearing now scheduled for Feb. 7.
Darin Mano, new council chairman this year, is opposed to requirements that ADUs be occupied by the property owner when the units are built in residential areas. (That doesn’t apply to ADUs in commercial zones.)
“That’s a pretty significant disincentive to building these,” Mano told the council, calling it “the biggest barrier to this helping our housing stock. . . . That means you can either never move, or when you do, you must sell the property.”
Puy agreed, but said his bigger fear was that large numbers of ADUs permitted under a new ordinance would be turned into short-term rentals on online sites such as Airbnb. Other parts of city code forbid short-term rentals, but state law leaves Utah cities with relatively few powers to enforce such bans — and the capital city has hundreds of them.
“We have zero tools right now to enforce our laws, and I will be scared of opening that door,” Puy said, “because without them, this is an incentive to turn the city into ‘short-term rental central.’”
Wharton called yanking the owner-occupied rule “just a nonstarter,” saying it would only worsen problems with absentee landlords “not being responsive to residents as they continue to collect higher rents while providing fewer services and less upkeep.”
Mano responded that with rest of the council against removing owner occupancy, he wouldn’t hold up the ordinance over his own opposition to that part.
Wharton, with support from colleague Amy Fowler, said the city might want to retain some kind of review for each ADU application, although Norris, the city planning director, said that probably would be “a morale killer” for the planning commission.
Residents who were reluctant four years ago to welcome ADUs were reassured at the time, Wharton contended, by the idea that conditional use hearings would take into account their concerns. “We need to give voice to that part as well,” said Wharton, “and the fact that public and neighborhood support for ADUs is critical to their success in Salt Lake City.”
But he, too, said his concerns weren’t worth “drawing a line in the sand” against approving the proposed ordinance as a whole. “I just don’t want to lose people and support of ADUs,” Wharton said, “because of what we’re doing.”