John Armstrong rose before the Salt Lake City Council last week to talk about his mom, Norma.
Now 72, the mother of five who’s lived in the same Poplar Grove home for 50 years doesn’t need as much house now living on her own. She wants to stay in the area close to family, though, and can’t sell without having to move far away to find something comparable she can afford. Instead, she wants to build a 600-square-foot “tiny” home on her property, live in that, and rent out her current house.
Under current city zoning, she can’t: That second home is not allowed on the same property, no matter how tiny. But that could change on Tuesday.
Already on record endorsing changes to city rules on accessory dwellings — so-called “mother-in-law” apartments and their kin — the City Council is poised Tuesday to broaden where such dwellings can be built, and how many.
As for how many, there’ll be no limit. But where they can go is another story, and that’s because of neighborhood opposition in some of the city’s older, wealthier east-side neighborhoods.
Rather than push an ordinance through against that opposition, city officials — planners and lawmakers — are opting instead to let them be for now, with an eye toward revisiting the entire matter in three to four years.
“To be honest with you, I noticed that it was starting to become heated in a way that I don’t think would have been productive if we continued to insist on changes to the policy that was proposed,” said Councilman Derek Kitchen, whose amendments to the new guidelines won informal approval from the Council last week.
“I didn’t want to politicize it more than it has been, so I think the compromise would allow it to blossom as much as possible in the areas of the city where it’s allowed,” he said.
Big opposition to tiny homes
An accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, is a second discrete living space built adjacent to, or carved out of, an existing home. It could be a basement apartment, one over a garage, or a separate building altogether on the same single-family property. Advocates cite numerous advantages and benefits, from easing housing shortages, especially in mid-market, to promoting economic development, reducing environmental impacts, and stabilizing neighborhoods. There are also social benefits, such as allowing older residents like Armstrong’s mother to “age in place.”
“It really can affect people like her, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 50 years and wants to stay there but is really running out of options,” Armstrong, an event planner, said of his mother. “If she were to sell her house, she wouldn’t be able to go buy anything like it. She’d have to go outside of Salt Lake City to gain anything from the sale of her home.”
Opponents see a different picture: Streets clogged with more parked cars, poorly-built and -designed neighborhood eyesores, unenforceable rules on maintenance and occupancy, and the potential for “tiny” homes to be rented to oversized groups for short stays, Airbnb-style.
“We’re already seeing existing accessory dwelling units used as Airbnb’s,” said Councilmember Stan Penfold, whose district includes The Avenues.
Regulations have blocked nearly all requests
An ordinance regulating ADU’s in Salt Lake passed in 2012, limiting them to areas within half a mile of a transit line. In the five years since, that restriction has produced exactly one such dwelling, although three others have received permits and are under construction. Homeowners who wanted to build them and sought permits, city planners found, typically resided in wealthier neighborhoods, away from transit lines.
That prompted housing-starved Salt Lake to take another look in 2016 at how such dwellings are regulated. An initial proposal called for limiting how many could be created per year, based on permit issuance, but imposed no limits on where.
In neighborhoods such as The Avenues, Yalecrest, and the East Bench, the no-limits part of the plan went over about as well as an unwelcome relative — a mother-in-law, perhaps — at Thanksgiving dinner. Planners taking comments from the public were taken aback by the opposition. In deference to it, and to get new guidelines on the books that the city could then assess down the road, they drew a boundary line to exclude ADUs from the neighborhoods that harbored the most opposition.
Those ADU opponents, it should be noted, live right alongside people who have the means and the desire to build them but can’t under the current regulation, city planners say.
Not about NIMBY
What looks like a nod to NIMBY, or Not in My Back Yard, however, is more strategic than it appears. It turns out that cities that allow but initially limit ADUs by location later expand them citywide — because the neighborhoods that don’t get them at the outset end up wanting them. That finding is borne out by work done this semester, coincidentally, by a group at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning.
“We looked at eight cities and virtually all of them have gone with an incremental approach,” said Michael Larice, associate professor of urban design and city planning, who led a design studio on the subject with three Ph.D. and five master’s degree candidates. “After a while, after the program has proven itself, it’s gone universal, and it’s gone universal in every city we looked at so far.”
Salt Lake’s new guidelines call for a review of the rules in three years, possibly with a sunset clause after four years to ensure that such a review occurs.
“I’m convinced that after that three-year review it will be adopted citywide,” Larice said. “If the city does the right thing and adopts some of the other measures we suggested … there should be no reason that it doesn’t expand citywide.”
The architecture school group has identified 37 arguments in favor of ADUs and only eight against. The group will formally present its study in two weeks, but Kitchen and several colleagues have met with it to hear the findings. That’s reflected in some of the changes Kitchen proposed last week. He reversed himself on earlier amendments that would have limited annual permits but not where ADUs could go.
That change-of-heart didn’t sit well with two colleagues, Councilmembers Erin Mendenhall and James Rogers, who wanted ADUs to be permitted citywide from the get-go.
“When we talk about affordable housing and stress the importance of an equitable distribution around the city, and in the same afternoon we talk about intentionally not distributing these (accessory dwelling) units equitably throughout the city, there’s an incredible discord there and a lack of continuity in our values as a council,” Mendenhall said. She added that there is a “false perception” among opponents that allowing more people into a neighborhood leads to “a degradation in the quality of life and perhaps even the safety of a neighborhood.”
Councilman Charlie Luke said the idea of increasing accessory dwellings has been advanced as “one thing that will help to be a solution to affordability. It will not,” though it will likely help with the mid- and upper-market.
He said the plan that stands to be approved Tuesday creates “a path forward so that we can understand this better and where it works in some neighborhoods and where there might be challenges in other neighborhoods.”