Bill allowing mother-in-law apartments, with some restrictions, slips through Utah House

Proponents say short-term rentals are an effective tool to fight Utah’s affordable housing shortage

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, is the sponsor of HB82, which would allow homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, sometimes known as mother-in-law apartments, as a solution to Utah's affordable housing crisis.

The Utah House erupted into a lengthy debate Thursday over whether the newest version of a bill freeing up homeowners to establish accessory dwelling units, also known as mother-in-law apartments, gave too much power to cities that might seek to block the housing units. Others argued the bill would not do much to fix the state’s affordable housing crunch.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said the fourth draft of HB82 seeks to give municipalities tighter controls over the basement dwellings, which proponents say is a start to solving Utah’s growing housing crisis.

“We as a state have put quite a bit of time into trying to find ways to get more affordable housing. We have done tax credits. We have said we’re going to build some units of affordable housing. But, to my observation, those efforts have failed in the face of the inexorable logic of supply and demand,” said Ray.

ADUs are usually less expensive and easier to build than traditional housing, but proponents say there are too many restrictions on them.

The current version of the bill seeks to strike a balance allowing mother-in-law apartments but establishing some exceptions for local governments to restrict or even block them in some cases. It also creates uniform standards for construction and safety.

Ward says these short-term rentals are a good stopgap because, in many cases, this type of housing does not come at a significant cost to governments. Although the proposal creates a pilot program allowing banks to make loans to homeowners to convert part of their house for this purpose if they are rented out to low-income Utahns.

House Majority Whip Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said he fully backs the idea, even though it would hurt his business as a real estate developer and homebuilder.

“This goes against my whole business model by allowing people to rent their own basement inside their houses, but this is the number one thing we can do right now to address our housing affordability problem,” he said.

Schultz says there’s incredible demand for housing in the state, and lawmakers need to act on this.

“When a house that’s affordable comes on the market, it has multiple offers on it within hours. I have one project with more people on the waiting list than who will have the opportunity to buy those town homes. This won’t solve the problem, but it will put a dent in it.”

But, not everyone agreed that this was an effective solution, and worried it may lead to more problems than it solves.

“The addition of accessory dwelling units brings up a very significant concern to a lot of citizens,” said Rep. Steven Waldrip, R-Eden, who also serves on the Ogden Valley Planning Commission. “They bring a very different flavor to a neighborhood. This is a needed compromise to assuage the fears of a lot of residents who are worried these are going to become the next Airbnb.”

Others argued in-migration to Utah from other states was the reason Utah’s real estate market was so off-kilter, and this proposal did nothing to address that issue.

“The best thing we can do to get affordable housing is to get California to straighten out,” said Rep. Mike Kohler, R-Midway. “I live in an area that, even if this happens at full speed, they will not be affordable. It will make no difference unless the economy really changes.”

Ward argued the state can no longer take a piecemeal approach in finding a solution.

“We don’t have a Bountiful problem of affordable housing, or a Draper problem or a Brigham City problem. We have a Wasatch Front problem and the interests of each individual locality do not point to a solution for the whole,” he said.

Ward’s bill was approved by a 50-19 margin and heads to the Senate.