Salt Lake City leaders pledged support Tuesday for renters and property owners alike as they approved a hard-fought set of reforms meant to encourage more accessory dwellings units.
As Utah’s capital seeks to close a deficit of at least 5,500 affordable homes, the City Council voted to try its latest approach to ADUs for three years by streamlining city reviews and giving homeowners and businesses more leeway on the size, height, lot location and parking requirements for add-on homes they may build.
In what proved the most contentious part of the overhaul, the council also voted unanimously to retain an owner-occupancy rule citywide, meaning homeowners must live in either the ADU or the primary dwelling.
“We need all the housing we can get,” said council member Alejandro Puy, who was among those who opposed that rule as too restrictive but nonetheless backed the compromise.
“I still see some conflict in this,” Puy said, “but I appreciate the work that we have done.”
Few policy changes at City Hall in recent years have drawn this much debate, revealing divisions along the way between existing residents and newcomers, the east and west sides, and property owners and renters.
“Everybody on this council understands and welcomes renters in Salt Lake City,” council member Chris Wharton said, calling the ordinance “a lightning rod issue” among residents.
“Not everybody is going to be able to achieve single-family home ownership. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they choose to rent,” Wharton said. “All of those people, all of the above and more, all need to have a welcome place in our city.”
The idea that property owners get special privileges in the city, council member Victoria Petro said, “is a fallacy that cannot be tolerated by us and will not be tolerated by us.”
Hoping to create more housing
The ordinance is expected to take effect within two weeks or so, after securing the signature of Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who has signaled she supports it.
For residents wanting to build these tiny homes, ADUs will be a permitted land use, meaning applications at City Hall no longer require a planning commission hearing — though they do still need building permits. State law already allows internal ADUs in residential zones, so this ordinance affects external homes.
Detached ADUs now can be up to 1,000 square feet, a size considered suitable for more than one bedroom. Backyard setback rules have been loosened. The city’s minimum requirement of one off-street parking spot per unit will also be waived within proximity to bike paths or transit lines, or when there is enough space for on-street parking in front of the primary residence.
The approved reforms will pump $1 million into financial support to those wanting to construct these units, which include garage studios, backyard cottages and granny flats. Two civil enforcement officers will be hired to ensure new ADUs are not illegally deployed as short-term rentals on sites such as Airbnb.
The first major change to city ADU policy since 2018, the ordinance also gives adversely affected neighbors the right to enforce short-term rental bans in court under restrictive covenants — and recoup legal costs if they prevail.
Heated debate over short-term rentals
The growing short-term rental phenomenon dominated this latest debate in many ways, amid fears the ADU concessions might incentivize more developers to buy up older homes and demolish them to build new, less affordable housing with add-on units.
On the flip side, council chair Darin Mano and others said the rule created unwanted barriers to construction by limiting the options of property owners. The council at one point considered limiting owner occupancy to some of the city’s least dense residential neighborhoods, but members ultimately sided with Mendenhall’s request the rule be kept in place citywide.
“I agree that we probably all didn’t get everything we wanted,” Mano told colleagues as they prepared to vote. “But this is a huge step forward overall.”
A pro-housing group called SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors said Wednesday that the council’s vote was “a victory” and an affirmation that ADUs are vital to the city’s housing goals — but added that it, too, was disappointed at the owner-occupancy requirement.
“We appreciate the council’s commitment to reconsider the issue in three years,” the group said in a statement. It also called on the city to create preapproved ADU designs for residents to use, allow ADUs to be sold separately from primary dwellings, and implement “a sustainable, long-term financing program” to fund more units.
In its final motion, the council agreed to revisit the ordinance after three years instead of five, in tandem with stepped-up data gathering by city planners on ADU trends.